Friday, June 14, 2024

Opinion: North America should seize the day in World Cup 2026

The ties between the United States and Mexico form one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world today, with profound implications for the prosperity, well-being and security of the people of both nations.

Some in Mexico and the U.S. may certainly not enjoy reading this, but there is one inescapable truth that has developed over time since the early 1990s, and accelerated following NAFTA’s approval. 

A deepening U.S.-Mexico relationship

This fact could fundamentally alter the nature of the relationship and entail a profound impact for North America and even the larger global community: Despite the rhetoric, despite the challenges of presidential campaigns in our two nations during 2024, Mexico and the United States are converging, both as societies and as economies.

Why, you ask?

The inescapable deepening and widening of our bilateral ties over these past decades, despite rhetoric in the US and shortsightedness in Mexico) and notwithstanding past mistakes, failures, and lost opportunities; current geopolitics and the ongoing recalibration of U.S. ties with China; the promise of the relocation of investment (the much touted nearshoring paradigm) and the deepening of essential supply chains; the energy revolution and the transition to a digital economy in North America.

Notwithstanding the current Mexican government’s ill-advised and myopic energy policies, all of this could add to economic growth and energy independence, efficiency, resilience, sustainability, and security for our region with increasingly integrated production platforms, adding economic and labor value throughout North America. It could also add a middle-income Mexico solidifying over the next decade; and the growing societal, cultural, and trans-border connectivity between communities. Add to that the fact that each country has its largest diaspora community living in the other. 

The challenges and opportunities ahead

However, this unique and complex partnership is now facing serious challenges, not least of which are foundering public perceptions on both sides of the border that will likely be turbocharged with the narrative surrounding the 2024 campaigns, and the fact that Mexico will be an electoral piñata, as all roads to the GOP nomination — and to the presidential campaign — pass through the Mexican border.

One of the keys to surmounting this challenge — one of perception rather than reality — is to foster the belief within either society that each is a stakeholder in the success of the other. A potent way to achieve this is via the power of sport, and of soccer in particular. 

Soccer could become a great societal connector between Mexico and the United States, and that is why during my tenure as Mexican ambassador in Washington, I started advocating for Mexico and the United States to co-host the 2026 World Cup, with host cities on both sides of the border, the opening match played in one country (Mexico), and the final in the other (the U.S). The transformative potential could be significant.

After several years of speeches, lobbying, advocacy and public diplomacy, President Barack Obama picked up on the idea and pitched it as a Mexico-U.S.-Canada World Cup bid during my last North American Leaders Summit as a serving ambassador, in 2012. The rest, as they say, is history.

What drove me in this obsession since I first pitched the idea (pun intended) in 2009?

Why the World Cup?

For starters, both nations boast a huge — and in the case of the U.S., an expanding — and enthusiastic fan base. Then there are the various communities throughout the U.S. who are passionate about soccer, particularly among the Gen X and Millennial demographics. One has only to witness how the MLS has taken off, the “Messi effect” in Miami, how Mexicans in the U.S. now follow the league there as well as Mexico’s league, or how Americans from San Diego would cross over into Tijuana to root for the Xolos, the local team there which they adopted as their own.

And most of the stadiums already exist in key host cities in both countries, and only need upgrading, so there would be no new costly behemoths or white elephants that go unused once the cup is over, like in South Africa or Qatar. Good existing air connectivity between both nations could be rapidly expanded, a trusted traveler program already in place between both countries would facilitate tourism, and our respective transportation infrastructures — and our rickety and outmoded joint border infrastructure in particular — could certainly benefit from governmental investment and upgrading.

Per a study conducted for the bid, the North American World Cup can generate a whopping US $5 billion in economic activity for the region, support roughly 40,000 jobs, and create a net benefit of up to $480 million per host city. 

But more importantly, I have always believed that nations throughout the course of history have succeeded thanks to human connections. A joint World Cup can be instrumental in changing ongoing narratives that both nations face in the world today, providing both nations with vital soft power projection and country branding tools.

For the U.S., which has hosted few mega-sports events since 2001, the World Cup could do wonders to break down the vision abroad of an isolated “Fortress America.”

For Mexico, it could underscore that it is one of the true global cultural superpowers in the world and that beyond the challenges of public security, the rule of law and migration, it has huge economic potential and growth in tandem with its two North American trading partners.

Showing the world North America’s potential

The Mexican, U.S. and Canadian governments, along with the private sectors of both nations and cultural institutions and the creative industries on both sides of the border need to seize the day and quickly come together to devise a common public diplomacy strategy and a campaign jointly implemented in the three World Cup host countries and also abroad, using culture, the arts, gastronomy and entertainment to connect our peoples, and convey to the rest of the world the potential of North America in the 21st century.

Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of the great Liverpool team of the 1960s and early ’70s —  the team I grew up loving as a young boy in Wales — once deadpanned that while some people thought that soccer was a matter of life and death, he was convinced it was much more important than that.

Soccer is never just about soccer. It reflects the crosscurrents and paradigm shifts of the world at a given time. For Mexico and the U.S., hosting the 2026 World Cup is also about more than just soccer. It is about both nations becoming better neighbors, about creating a sense of co-stakeholdership, and having both peoples become partners to success instead of accomplices to failure.

At the end of the day, it could send an extremely powerful message to the rest of the world regarding the nature and promise of our ties, and our three nations will come out winners, regardless of who wins the tournament. No surprise, therefore, that I am rooting for Mexico, the U.S. or Canada to lift the trophy on July 19, 2026!

Arturo Sarukhan has had a distinguished education and career, serving as Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. (2007-2013), and in additional advisory roles in both Mexico and the U.S. Currently based in Washington, D.C., he writes about international issues for various media outlets and is a regular opinion columnist published on Mexico News Daily.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Mexico News Daily, its owner or its employees.

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