FIFA approves plan to fast-track 2026 World Cup host bidding process
MANAMA, Bahrain -- FIFA's full membership voted to approve a plan to fast-track the 2026 World Cup host bidding process on Thursday as part of a FIFA Congress that also included a vow from president Gianni Infantino to examine the transfer system. There was also an awkward debate involving the federations of Israel and Palestine.
Ninety-three percent of the 209 voting members of the Congress approved the 2026 plan, setting the United States-led North American bid on course to officially land the hosting rights as early as June 2018.
Any other nations interested in bidding have to express interest by Aug. 11; bids then have to meet a list of FIFA's technical specifications by March 2018. Given the quick turnaround and FIFA's restrictions on which confederations are allowed to bid, the North Americans are prohibitive favorites.
The North American bid had initially asked FIFA to grant it an exclusive window to meet the technical specifications, but -- with an eye toward the importance of transparency in FIFA's post-scandal world -- the FIFA Council amended that to allow for any other nations that might want to bid.
"We have to make sure this bidding process is bulletproof," Infantino said.
Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, said that he and the other bid leaders want to avoid being presumptuous, but that it is difficult not to think of how soccer fans would react to the World Cup returning to the U.S. for the first time since 1994.
"In a way, we weren't really a sophisticated soccer country in 1994," Gulati said. "We've had such growth since then. ... It's a great focal point, a vision for everyone connected to the game. And maybe also for the men's national team, where we can dream about what might happen at that tournament."
The rest of the Congress here was largely procedural. Infantino once again raised the issue of evaluating the player transfer system, though he clarified later that he was not directly referring to the case involving Paul Pogba's $111 million (£89.3m) move from Juventus to Manchester United in 2016. That transfer is under investigation by FIFA, but Infantino said his point was that FIFA needs to do a holistic examination of the system generally.
The most emotional moment came during the discussion of a proposal from the Palestinian Football Association, which moved for FIFA to sanction the Israeli federation and require Israeli club teams from settlements in the West Bank to disband.
The Palestine FA has argued that the six teams are on Palestinian territory and thus in violation of FIFA rules prohibiting one country's teams from being based across borders. The Israel FA counters that FIFA's rules don't apply because there is no permanently defined border.
Jibril Rajoub, the Palestine FA's president, spoke at length on the issue, calling for a decision to be made -- FIFA has delayed a decision on the issue for years -- and saying that "we want to stop all football and football-related activity run by the Israeli federation in Palestine's internationally recognized territories."
Israel's FA president, Ofer Eini, countered by asking Rajoub, "What are you trying to do here -- stop six teams of children from playing football? How will this resolve the Palestinian problems?"
The Palestine FA also objected to Infantino's call for a vote to delay a decision once more, saying it was not in line with FIFA statutes. Nonetheless, a vote was taken, and the motion to have the smaller FIFA Council -- as opposed to the full Congress -- consider the issue in the future passed by 138-50.
"We want to take a decision, [and] we have to take a decision," Infantino said at a news conference after the Congress. "Whether the decision will satisfy one party or the other party or none or both of them, we don't know."
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.