MOSCOW — This will be music to the ears of his supporters and torturous reading for those who oppose him, but since November 2016 Donald Trump is 1-0 in presidential elections and 2-0 in the United States landing global sports events.
Victory for the “United Bid” comprised of the U.S., Mexico and Canada on Wednesday means that the 2026 World Cup will head to North America and, in a stunning reversal after months of speculation as to how Trump might hurt the vote, it ultimately turned out that he helped win it.
Since March, Trump provided bid leaders with three letters addressed to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, guaranteeing that no incoming immigration crackdowns would impact players, administrators or fans coming to the U.S. for the World Cup, according to The New York Times.
It was one part of extensive but largely under-the-radar government support for the bid, and the letters took away the primary fear in the minds of FIFA federation members that could have persuaded them to vote for Morocco instead.
Wednesday’s vote follows on from the success of Los Angeles in gaining the right to stage the 2028 Summer Olympics, a campaign backed by Trump and in which L.A. bid leaders were highly complimentary of the president’s involvement.
So many people, this reporter included, were off base in predicting how Trump’s bombastic ways and controversial policies would affect things.
Few were more wrong than former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. He said before President Obama was elected in 2008 that a Democratic president would give a U.S. World Cup bid the greatest chance of success. He then hinted in the summer of 2016 that Trump’s then-unlikely tilt at the presidency would be a detrimental factor, adding that a joint bid involving Mexico was likely a non-starter unless “Secretary Clinton was in the White House.”
Gulati is gone as president and was a peripheral member of the bid by the end, while Trump, who has little history of showing any real knowledge or interest in soccer, was left to claim many of the late plaudits.
As this all relates to sports, scorecards are appropriate. And as much as Obama had charisma that stretched far beyond American borders, that never translated into votes for big athletic extravaganzas. On that front it’s Trump 2, Obama 0.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort on Obama’s part either. Obama went to bat hard for his hometown of Chicago as it tried to stage the 2016 Olympics. He held an event on the White House lawn and flew to Copenhagen in an attempt to sway the vote, but the Windy City came last out of four candidates as the voters opted for Rio de Janeiro instead.
Obama came out strongly for the U.S. World Cup campaign for 2018 and 2022 as well, getting chummy with Sepp Blatter, writing letters to and meeting with the soccer politician – later to be exposed as a master crook. Russia got 2018 when it was decided that event would go to a European candidate and Qatar came from nowhere to steal away 2022, leaving Obama to receive a consolation phone call from Blatter informing him of the bad news and later quipping to reporters that FIFA had “made the wrong decision.”
But it is no accident that Trump’s U.S. has gotten over the line twice, that Putin will be on parade at Thursday’s opening ceremony and that China and Brazil have joined the club of being awarded multiple worldwide events in the 20th century.
Sporting bureaucrats like their politicians to be – how can this be put kindly? – doers rather than talkers. Putin was going to make sure the Sochi Olympics got built and finished and ready for display, even if it meant spending $50 billion and cutting more corners than a cheating speedskater.
China was going to make Beijing a success in 2008 no matter how high the human or financial cost. To those who vote on these things, Darfur didn’t matter enough, Chechnya didn’t matter enough, Dilma Rouseff’s crooked ways and the wall and Colin Kaepernick didn’t matter enough either.
Much as Trump detractors might want his involvement to be incidental to the victory, it isn’t. There were many voters looking for any reason to not give their pick to the United Bid. Many within FIFA were still angry it was the U.S. Justice Department that brought down the rotting house of cards that festered under Blatter’s ugly rule.
Many delegates believed that CONCACAF, as a small and competitively weak confederation with only three countries possessing even close to the capability to stage a World Cup, should only host every 50 years or so.
Whatever role Trump played, it won’t soften the approach of his critics and neither should it. There are more than enough holes in his policies to poke at and surely in his character too.
But as odd, counter-intuitive and surprising it is to write, if you want big sports events to come to America, then having Trump in the White House is no impediment.