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Split on geopolitics, North America unites with winning World Cup bid

© AFP | With Canada, Mexico and the United States winning host duties for the 2026 World Cup, football may serve as the balm that soothes trade and immigration tensions between US President Donald Trump and neighboring nations

WASHINGTON (AFP) - 

Having antagonized Canada and Mexico in trade and immigration squabbles, US President Donald Trump is suddenly under pressure to cooperate with his neighbors on an issue the rest of the world obsesses over: the beautiful game.

On Wednesday, football's governing body FIFA awarded the 2026 World Cup hosting duties to a joint bid by the United States, Mexico and Canada, easily prevailing over underdogs Morocco.

The North Americans have hardly been the Three Amigos of late. They have struggled to update their NAFTA free trade pact, which Trump has threatened to tear up.

The president shockingly blamed age-old ally Canada for a disastrous G7 summit, and his position on immigration and demands for a wall along the southern US border has offended Mexico and raised eyebrows globally.

But from Tuesday forward, the countries aim to shelve their disagreements and present a united front, at least when it comes to co-hosting the world's most-watched single-sport event.

The battle over who would host the tournament had been dogged by concerns that the vote could become a referendum on Trump's popularity.

But within minutes of FIFA's decision, warm fuzzies appeared on Twitter, with Trump offering congratulations and saying "a great deal of hard work" went into the winning bid.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chimed in to say "it's going to be a great tournament," while Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto said North America is "deeply united."

It was a far more provocative tweet by Trump in April in which the president's veiled threats of geo-political repercussions against countries that opposed the American effort were seen to put the entire bid in danger.

"It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid," Trump wrote. "Why should we be supporting these countries when they don't support us (including at the United Nations)?"

Prior to Tuesday's vote, the United 2026 leader Carlos Cordeiro stressed that "this is not geopolitics" or a vote on Trump, but about what is in the best interest of football.

- 'Learn a lesson' -

Even though it is a joint bid, the United States will enjoy the bulk of the action: 60 of the tournament's 80 matches will be played on US soil, including every game from the quarter-finals onwards.

While the US and Canada did not even qualify for this year's World Cup which kicks off Thursday in Russia, North America might be the apt location to expand the tournament to 48 teams from 32, which FIFA has elected to do for the first time in 2026.

That means an expected increase in global viewership and all-important advertising revenue -- ideal for a ratings-obsessed billionaire US leader and former reality TV star.

While American lawmakers were already jockeying for matches in their cities -- "Miami and Orlando should be picked to host," tweeted Senator Bill Nelson of Florida -- at least one congresswoman suggested a political takeaway for Trump.

"America wins when we work together w friends and neighbors," House Democrat Kathy Castor tweeted. "I hope people learn a lesson here."

With US unilateralism and travel restrictions rattling governments worldwide, Trump himself provided FIFA president Gianni Infantino with letters essentially assuring that the president's hardline position on visas would not apply to World Cup attendees, The New York Times reported.

Mexico, whose president has twice scrapped plans for a visit to Washington to meet with Trump, has fumed over the brash American's grandstanding about immigration restrictions and building a border wall.

But Juan Luna, a vendor in Mexico City, downplayed the impact on the tournament of the recent political tensions between the three host countries.

"Sports is one thing, politics is another," Luna, 66, told AFP.

"We have to look at that (the diplomatic strains) from another viewpoint, we have to deal with it in another place and time."

© 2018 AFP