Throughout the build-up to the 2022 World Cup, Qatar was scrutinized far more for scandal than for sport.
Many outlets, including The Athletic, brought the nation’s problematic human rights record to light. FIFA was questioned about the manner in which the country secured the right to host the tournament. There are bound to be more stories unearthed about that tournament in the coming months to years. Meanwhile, the focus on issues around other FIFA tournament host nations seems to have drifted into the background.
But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t similarly dissect what lies ahead with the 2026 World Cup hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.That tournament carries all the usual questions a World Cup brings — who pays, who benefits — as well as political issues unique to its host nations.
Where and how FIFA does its business matters; while no host is perfect, choosing to bring massive tournaments to locales with poor human rights signals what values and which fans FIFA cares about, and can embolden other groups to also do business there.
“The thought that you can remove any considerations of politics or social issues or human rights from sports — if anybody’s still saying that, they’re not being honest,” said Michael Posner, the director of NYU’s Center for Business and Human Rights who served in the Obama administration from 2009-2013 as assistant secretary of state for the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor. “Why do countries bid for these mega sporting events? They do it because it enhances their prestige, it enhances their reputation in the world. It has economic benefits, but also costs, but they are basically putting themselves on the line to be in the global spotlight.”
For the United States in particular, these issues align with many current topics of concern for both local and international fans, including labor rights, gun violence and women’s rights.
Among the many non-soccer storylines surrounding the tournament in Qatar was a clamping down on social advocacy. Two weeks before the games began, FIFA asked its teams to not engage in demonstrations or speak out about any issue that wasn’t directly related to the sport itself. The day before the opening match, FIFA president Gianni Infantino contradicted his own requests and lambasted the western world (in an unforgettably pompous way) for criticizing Qatari policies which, ahead of the tournament, led Amnesty International to deem the tournament “the World Cup of shame.”
With the next men’s World Cup primarily taking place in the nation that proclaims it was founded with free speech at its heart, it’s likely that teams and fans alike will see this as an opportunity to make up for lost chances to take a stand in Qatar.
“Even in Qatar, in Doha, you had the incident of the Iranian team not singing the national anthem,” said Posner. “All the debate about which armbands could be worn and not worn, all of that. I think inevitably in the United States, which probably more than any place in the world leans in the direction of free speech over everything, I imagine that we’re going to see — especially when there are 48 teams — there are going to be people who come and who will use the platform of a free society and an open society to express whatever’s on their mind about what’s going on at home.”
From warm-up tops to scarves and a myriad of other methods, there could be a significant uptick in social advocacy. North American sports have seen ample examples of this over the past decade, perhaps most notably the symbolism of kneeling in protest of police brutality and racism. The originator of that specific act, Colin Kaepernick, went unsigned in the following years despite his previous above-average quarterback play while Megan Rapinoe’s activism has made her one of the most recognizable athletes of any gender identity or sport. The visiting nations could also feel emboldened by playing in North America. However, as seen with Iran’s participation in 2022, those coming from abroad could likely face greater safety risks back home.
“That will undoubtedly enrage some of their leaders,” Posner said, “but it’s too good of an invitation in a way when you’re in the media capital of the world, in a place where free speech reigns supreme, it’s going to occur to a lot of people that this is our chance to kind of get out there and get some attention to whatever it is we’re unhappy about at home.”
Worrying about a shooting at a public event in the United States is an ever-growing concern. According to gun safety advocates Everytown, the gun homicide rate in the U..S is 26 times higher than in comparable countries due to Americans having relatively easier access to guns. The Gun Violence Archive tracked 647 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2022, with shootings from 2018-2022 tending to peak in the summer months, per their statistics. Some countries, such as the UK, even inform tourists traveling abroad about mass shootings in the U.S. as part of their travel alerts, showing that these incidents can be part of the U.S.’s international perception.
The laws concerning possession of a firearm in a sports stadium differ from state to state, but weapons policy can also be set directly by the stadium itself. For example, Washington state allows its cities and towns to make their own laws about restricting the possession of firearms in a stadium, but Lumen Field in Seattle explicitly prohibits guns in the stadium along with all the other U.S. venues for the World Cup.
While the U.S. hasn’t had a shooting at a major sports event in recent history, gun violence has increased at school sports events. Some of the contributing factors cited by ESPN — overall lax security, fewer metal detectors, and lack of coordinated security patrols — would hopefully not be concerns for World Cup games. But what they do have in common is excited, often rowdy, crowds with historical rivalries, with the added presence of alcohol.
Those crowds will also exist outside the confines of a live game, at watch parties or simply touring the various host cities. There’s also the legitimate worry of racialized gun violence, not just between local citizens, but against visiting international fans from other countries. The rise in violent hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, shows how racism manifests while exacerbated by a high-pressure situation.
Differing state-by-state laws could impact all of these concerns. In a state with relatively strong gun control laws like Massachusetts, while licensed firearm owners may carry their weapons into places like sporting arenas and bars serving alcohol, carrying while under the influence of alcohol is punishable by a fine of $5,000 or imprisonment for up to 2.5 years, or both.
Regardless, as the prevalent stadium bans on weapons shows, violence isn’t good for business. As such, FIFA is certainly heavily incentivized to invest in spectator safety and to instruct its local organizers to both coordinate with local law enforcement and to have safety plans in place in the event of gun violence.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has been pressing FIFA on labor rights since before the official host cities were selected, asking the federation to “commit to minimum human and labor rights standards for 2026.” Their demands stood in especially stark contrast to the constant news of human and labor rights violations flowing out of Qatar. While the United States isn’t in the same situation of building venues from the ground up, that doesn’t mean there aren’t labor concerns at play.
“The ultimate goal is to make sure that the jobs in the stadiums and at fan fests and the jobs associated with these games are good jobs, are secure jobs,” said Lee Strieb, the AFL-CIO’s FIFA campaign advisor last year. “Pushing FIFA, we hope that that would be the end result at the local level, is that you would have more union jobs and more good jobs for local residents as part of this.”
The AFL-CIO wants any World Cup-related employer to provide a fair living wage, health and safety protections, and to give jobs to the locals who will most benefit from them.
“Who are the security guards? Who were the people selling soft drinks and beer? Who’s paying them; what kind of benefits do they get? There’s going to be a wide range of people who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum who are going to be brought in by somebody or another to do something,” said Posner. “I think it’s appropriate to look at how they are being treated, who they work for, and how they are being paid? What kind of benefits do they get, what kind of security do they have? These are short term roles, roughly six weeks or seven weeks. While all this money is being made on one level, there are going to be people that are going to be shorted because they’re temporary workers hired through some agency and they’re brought in to do a job for too little money with too little job security.”
Strieb pointed out that, to help execute the logistics of the tournament, FIFA is setting up a Stateside, private, non-profit subsidiary, and that that entity will be contracting directly for things like fan fests, hotels, and stadiums.
“They can mandate in their contracting that certain minimum standards be followed by the companies that are picking up that stuff.” said Strieb.”And they can sign agreements with labor organizations and community groups where they commit to those standards.”
Strieb said that ideally, FIFA would set the floor for labor guidelines regardless of the host city, to ensure a certain standard of good jobs, and that by doing so the federation could ensure labor peace and avoid disputes with unions or other community groups concerned about wages, safety, and local impact.
“Our argument is that by having these standards in place, and by having these protections in place,” said Strieb, “It’ll be better for the people who are working in connection with the World Cup, but it will also produce a better product for customers, for the guests at the event, and it will produce a better outcome for the city because it will be a successful event. There will be more money coming into the system there.”
JJ Rosenbaum, executive director of transnational labor rights organization Global Labor Justice, agreed that this is another opportunity for FIFA to truly commit to human rights standards.
“(FIFA) took on both the challenge and the opportunity to have human and labor rights respecting games across borders. We think that’s really exciting,” she said. “We think that’s increasingly the way the global economy is working. And we think that FIFA can do it.”
Like Strieb, Rosenbaum said that FIFA could and should put labor and human rights safeguards into their contracts. The real problem here, though, is incentivizing FIFA to do any of this. FIFA has said they are following the United Nations’ guiding principles on responsible business conduct, and they will be “integrating human rights requirements into bidding processes for competitions.” But it’s easy to feel skeptical of this commitment given what we know about how the Qatar World Cup was built.
“The international labor standards, these agreed upon principles, (FIFA) may have failed to do them in the past and gotten away with it. That doesn’t mean that they’re not accountable to do it,” said Rosenbaum.
In other words, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is today.
Any accountability structure for enforcement and remedies for workers will come through a combination of federal and city-based laws. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must have a presence or office at World Cup work sites. Rosenbaum said there should also be some kind of wage and hour office, with these resources being available to all workers in relation to the games, including migrant workers. In addition, she spoke of the need for strong unions or other worker organizations to help relieve the onus being placed on individual workers to come forward about labor violations.
Rosenbaum pointed to previous work on human rights during the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where protestors marched to demand answers for political corruption, police brutality, and unfair and inhumane practices around the building of World Cup stadiums, such as the high cost of construction and forcibly evicting thousands of residents to build facilities. These protests took place amidst the backdrop of wider unrest among Brazil’s poor working class, beginning with huge demonstrations in 2013 that signaled the beginning of sitting president Dilma Rousseff’s decline in popularity.
“I think we really have to look at a much longer timeline, and the protests by human and labor rights organizations in Brazil during the Cup,” she said. “Asking questions about equity of investments were really important, I think, to bringing us to this moment.
“I would also say to FIFA that the future of soccer in the United States are fans that are women, that are migrant, that are people of color, that are young people, and those are the people that are driving the growth of unions right now … What’s going on with with young people in the workplace today, it’s not just about minimum wage, it’s about a much more fundamental understanding of what work is, what fairness is, and I think that the fans have shown in various ways, including in support of the (U.S.) women’s soccer team, that this is a fundamental issue for them. And so it’s both about drawing fans to the games, but also about building the base of young people in the long term, their long-term investment in these games, and in FIFA as a leader.”
When vetting a potential World Cup host nation, its record on women’s rights and reproductive rights should be one of the determining factors in establishing the country’s fitness to hold a tournament. In the United States, those rights are eroding in real time. Ever since the Supreme Court overturned its generations-old Roe v. Wade ruling in June 2022, each state has had greater control over whether or not it allows patients to seek safe and legal abortions. The Guttmacher Institute is a nonprofit which aims to use credible research to inform reproductive health policy; the Institute currently has an interactive map which tracks each state’s legislation for restrictions or bans in place.
Currently, Texas (which is home to hosting Dallas and Houston) and Missouri (Kansas City) are among the 12 states categorized as being the “most restrictive” in the nation, residing on one end of a scale whose other end reads “most protective,” a status held by just one state (Oregon, which will not host matches at the 2026 World Cup). Of the remaining states with host cities, Georgia is listed as “very restrictive,” while Florida (Miami) and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) are “restrictive.”
On the opposite end of the scale, New York and New Jersey (MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford) and California (Los Angeles and San Francisco) are “very protective” of patients’ rights, while Massachusetts (Boston/Foxborough) and Washington state (Seattle) are assessed as “protective.”
Abortion in Canada is legal at all stages of pregnancy and is publicly funded as a medical procedure under the combined effects of the federal Canada Health Act and provincial health-care systems. However, access to services and resources varies by region, particularly for those living outside of the nation’s main urban areas. In Mexico, the Supreme Court declared in 2021 that abortion can no longer be considered a crime. A recent wave of local legislation has also lifted restrictions in Mexico City, but it remains restricted in the states of Jalisco (Guadalajara) and Nuevo León (Monterrey).
Looming large over not just this tournament but all aspects of life in the United States is the 2024 presidential election. As of January 2023, it’s unclear whether or not current president Joe Biden will run for a second term in office. Posner — who is a Democrat — characterized the Biden administration’s approach to globalism (“We ought to be inclusive and open and in partnership with others”) in stark contrast to the previous administration under Donald Trump (“A kind of isolationism and a sense that the rest of the world is kind of out to get us”), who has stated intentions to run to reclaim the presidency in 2024.
“There are many divisions in our society, but one of them is exemplified by the last two presidents,” Posner said.
On the surface, it can appear that the results of the election may have little impact on a tournament which is already in motion with its planning and preparation. However, matters like entering the country, state rights regarding many topics addressed in this piece and beyond, and the world’s broader perception of the country hang in the balance.
“I take the view that having a sporting event, a global sporting event like the World Cup, is a great opportunity to express our engagement as a partner in the world, not as the superpower that tells the world what to do,” Posner said. “I think there’s real opportunities here to show our better angels, if you will, to say we’re doing this with our two neighbors, all three of us quite different from each other, and we are welcoming the world to participate with us in this great sporting event that we all love. That’s the opportunity.
“The alternative is to basically do it while holding our nose and trying to make life difficult. I could imagine, in the worst case scenario, making it difficult for people to travel here, making it less hospitable for people to come and visit and partake in the games, to be spectators or even athletes, to politicize everything imaginable.
“I think it’s too early to tell, but ask me on November 9, 2024, and I’ll tell you what it’s likely to feel like in 2026.”
While the bidding process for the 2026 hosting rights began in 2015, the United 2026 group was awarded the rights during Trump’s presidency. As a result, he tweeted an emphatic victory gloat: “Thank you for all of the compliments on getting the World Cup to come to the U.S.A., Mexico and Canada. I worked hard on this, along with a Great Team of talented people. We never fail, and it will be a great World Cup!”
U.S./Mexico relations and rhetoric
The relationship between the United States and Mexico is a complicated one to unpack. Tensions hit a crescendo during the Trump administration, as the 45th president heightened border policies above the already strict terms set by the Obama administration, while loudly advocating to build a wall along the 3,155 mile border, the 10th-largest land border between any two countries in the world. While the idea of a physical barrier has largely been dismissed for the time being, Posner still believes the two nations’ correspondence will be among the biggest social issues surrounding the 2026 World Cup.
“I think it’s gonna be hard not to take a look at where we stand,” Posner said. “It’s one of the places in the world where you have the greatest wealth gap between two countries that are neighbors; even though Mexico has a growing economy, it’s still a relatively poor country, (while) the United States is a very rich country. Inevitably, people are drawn from one to the other. You have all these people coming (to the border) from places like Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti, etc. So I think that’s an issue that will inevitably get attention.”
Border migration has skyrocketed as the world continues to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic’s first waves. After monthly migrant encounters — defined as apprehensions (when migrants are taken into custody to await adjudication) and expulsions (when migrants are expelled to their last country of transit or home country without being held) — at the U.S.-Mexico border hit a record low in April 2020 (16,182 encounters, per the Pew Research Center), that figure climbed above 200,000 last year for the first time since March 2000.
As Mexico’s economy stabilizes, the percentage of migrants coming from the nation has decreased in comparison to that of the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), as well as a recent upward trend of people arriving from Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela. Per the Pew Research Center, there were only four encounters with Colombian nationals at the U.S.-Mexico border in April 2020; by November 2022, that figure had increased to 15,439. There were even steeper increases in encounters with migrants from Cuba (from 161 encounters in April 2020 to 34,639 in November 2022) and Nicaragua (from 86 to 34,162). Many from these nations are not only seeking the promise of work and stability, but also seeking an escape from political violence and civil unrest in their homelands.
“In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a huge magnet from the United States pulling people from Mexico here,” Posner said. “That has eased, actually. I don’t know if there’s a net out migration, but there is not the same flood of people coming from Mexico into the United States. They’ve been replaced by Central Americans or Venezuelans or Haitians coming through Texas. But the broader issue of immigration and border control is going to be there, and the relationship between the United States and Mexico is still highly contentious because of those issues.”
This issue goes hand-in-hand with the process, tenor and ultimate result of the 2024 presidential election. From questions about the tournament’s workforce to migration’s undeniable impact on how other countries view the U.S., it’s hard to fully encapsulate the range of potential scenarios which unfold from that political contest.
“Certainly by 2026, and I think even between now and the 2024 election, there’s going to have to be some reckoning on how you begin to deal with those issues,” Posner said. “Immigration, broadly, migration is going to be on the agenda, but it’s important also to recognize the Mexican economy is better and more Mexicans are choosing to stay home. Some of the tensions that would have existed 20 years ago are not there in that push/pull.”
Mexico: safety of fans and journalists
While some fears for American tourists’ safety in Mexico are dated and rooted in xenophobia, a trend of incidents in 2022 gives ample reason for caution ahead of the 2026 tournament.
Soccer in Mexico faced a dark moment in March 2022, when a number of fans were injured as a result of fan violence at Querétaro’s Estadio La Corregidora after Queratero FC hosted Atlas FC in Liga MX play. The range of potential casualties is especially bleak and impossible to confirm, with some journalists calculating the total at just over a dozen while locals estimated human casualties by the hundreds (although this may have been exaggerated).
While many facts around that incident remain unresolved, that isn’t necessarily an abnormality. According to the nongovernmental group México Evalúa, only 5.2 percent of crimes committed in Mexico are solved. For comparison, 45.5% of violent crimes in the U.S. that were reported to the police in 2019 and 17.2% of the property crimes that came to their attention were solved, per the Pew Research Center.
That’s made grimly clear when looking at another dark national record from last year, as a record 13 journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2022. It was the second-highest total of journalist murders in any nation last year, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. While 13 of the 15 journalists killed in the Ukraine have confirmed motives attached (which CPJ defines as when it’s reasonably certain that a journalist’s career led to their killing; if it’s reasonably clear that it was not a factor, their death is neither tallied as confirmed nor unconfirmed), an alarming 10 of the 13 slain in Mexico had unconfirmed motives. While many suspect drug cartel violence, that’s largely just an assumption.
Both facts could make international tourism to catch games in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey a less intriguing proposition compared to games played in the United States and Canada.
Canada: A political shift on the horizon?
As is the case for the United States in 2024, the next election in Canada could have significant ramifications on many social policies nationwide. The current parliament, headed by Liberal Party prime minister Justin Trudeau and propped up by the New Democratic Party, skews to the left of the aisle and could serve its term into 2025. However, there’s some skepticism that the current establishment will run course for another two-plus years, and an election could be called for before then.
Via the Politico article from September linked above, “(a)n NDP source told POLITICO the party is determined to see the next phase through by the end of 2023, and will likely stick with the government until then. But they believe there’s a good chance the Liberals will pull the plug and call an election shortly after that — perhaps in the winter of 2024.”
After both the United States and the United Kingdom reacted to liberal government leaders with staunch pendulum swings to the right of the political spectrum over the last decade, there’s an anticipation that Canada could follow suit. The current front-runner to oppose Trudeau (or, if he doesn’t run for another term, an appointed successor candidate) is Pierre Poilievre, who became Leader of the Opposition in Parliament and Leader of the Conservative Party in September.
Described as a libertarian and a populist, Poilievre was a vocal advocate that workers should not be required to take government-recommended or mandated vaccinations. He’s also associated himself with personalities who frequently speak on far-right platforms, some of whom advocate for the distrust and dismantling of the Canadian government.
If it sounds eerily familiar to the U.S. and U.K.’s political climate around 2016, that’s to be expected. The strongest reaction to any party in power will come from its greatest opposition, and the loudest voices inevitably claim the first seats at the table. Still, with an election as yet unscheduled and the field of candidates still not settled, it’s one to keep track of over the coming years.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of potentially relevant factors to keep an eye on before the 2026 World Cup. There will doubtlessly be more that rises to prominence and requires a close eye from watchdog organizations and fans alike. Perennial national security questions about those marginalized by society and those who claim to protect them are also difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs and will require further reporting in the coming months and years. Some topics will require repeated focus to ensure they aren’t inadequately covered; among them, police brutality in the United States and the safety of those in the LGBTQ+ community weren’t explored in the space above as they require more nuanced investigation across the 16 host cities.
However, it’s important to remember that just because the international media isn’t focusing on geopolitics, as was the case for Russia 2018, or widespread prejudice and abuse of migrant workers as in Brazil 2014 and Qatar 2022, there is no utopic space where, as Infantino dreams, everyone can focus on the sport and nothing of greater importance to humanity.
“The issues are there,” Posner said, “and they will inevitably be raised in all sorts of ways.”
(Photo: YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)