US travel ban will damage 2026 World Cup bid

US the favourite to stage 2026 showpiece but that could change if ban imposed


The United States’ hopes of hosting the World Cup in 2026 will be damaged, perhaps critically, if Donald Trump’s travel restrictions come into full force, according to the president of Uefa. Aleksander Ceferin, installed as Uefa president last year, said measures that might prevent players, fans or journalists from attending the event would count against any bid. The United States is a clear favorite to be awarded the 2026 tournament, either on its own or as part of a joint North American bid with Mexico and Canada.

But in an interview at Uefa’s headquarters in Nyon last week, Ceferin said immigration policy would be among the areas considered during the evaluation of a US bid, and he suggested that it would “not help” if Trump succeeded in placing harsher restrictions on travel to the US from certain countries in the near term. Though Trump’s initial 90-day ban on immigration and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries was overturned by a federal court, he has vowed to introduce a second executive order that could limit travel from those nations, at least temporarily.

“It will be part of the evaluation, and I am sure it will not help the United States to get the World Cup,” Ceferin said. “If players cannot come because of political decisions, or populist decisions, then the World Cup cannot be played there. It is true for the United States, but also for all the other countries that would like to organise a World Cup.

“It is the same for the fans, and the journalists, of course. It is the World Cup. They should be able to attend the event, whatever their nationality is. But let’s hope that it does not happen.”

Ceferin’s warning is significant; in addition to his position leading European soccer, he is a vice president of Fifa. Bids for the 2026 tournament must be submitted by December 2018, before the start of a 13-month evaluation phase. Fifa will choose the host at a congress in May 2020.

The Trump administration’s proposed 90-day ban applied only to seven countries, but it caught the eye of world soccer officials because at least three of those countries have national teams that could be affected if it becomes more than a temporary policy. One of them, Iran, has played in the World Cup three times since 1998, and two others - Iraq and Syria - have joined Iran in the later rounds of Asian qualifying for next year’s tournament in Russia.

US Soccer declined to comment on Ceferin’s remarks on Sunday. Though it has not publicly confirmed its intention to bid for the tournament, the federation has expressed confidence that it would receive all the governmental guarantees needed to meet Fifa’s criteria for admitting visiting players and fans, and that no ban - temporary or otherwise - would be in place for the tournament. Fifa’s rules do not dictate that any potential hosts have entirely open borders.

The 2026 World Cup will be the first to comprise 48 teams after Fifa unanimously agreed last month to expand the competition from its current 32-team format. A final decision on how many spots each confederation will be given is expected when Fifa meets on March 30th, but Ceferin insisted that Europe’s conditions are clear: Uefa will demand 16 places, an increase of three teams, and request a guarantee that only one European team will be placed in each three-team group.

“Sixteen teams and each European team in a different group is the red line,” he said. “That is what we will insist on. The others are still discussing. That will happen, or we will make things quite complicated. Two or three of our member nations suggested to me that we ask for 20 or 24 teams, and if we have to settle for 16, then OK, but I do not want to push it. I said that we should be realistic. To say that we want half the teams at the World Cup would look arrogant to me.”

Ceferin also acknowledged that more stringent immigration policies could harm Britain’s chances of hosting major finals once the country exits the European Union. The Champions League final will have been held in Britain three times in the last nine years - twice at Wembley and this June at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff - and the semi-finals and final of the 2020 European Championship are set for London.

“If ‘Brexit’ happens, everything changes,” Ceferin said. “But football was played before, and it will be played in the future. Now, with free movement in the European Union, it is much better.” Though Ceferin, a former president of Slovenia’s soccer federation, insisted that Uefa’s commitment to staging the final matches of Euro 2020 in England remained “firm,” he said the organisation might have to discount Britain as a potential venue for showpiece games if “Brexit” made it harder for players and fans to enter the country.

As proof of the extra complications that might arise after England’s exit, he cited the example of Serge Aurier, the Paris St-Germain defender who was denied entry by British authorities for a Champions League game against Arsenal last year because of a conviction for assault that was under appeal.

“I was very disappointed when Aurier, from PSG, was not allowed to enter England,” he said. “That will worsen when ‘Brexit’ happens, especially if the reasons were as formal. We could have a serious problem.”

Ceferin said he had no problem if England wanted to withhold visas from “a severe criminal.”

“But if we see that players cannot enter because they have any sort of procedure ongoing, then we will simply think if we should play our European matches there,” he said. “Neymar and Lionel Messi both have procedures going on. This year, the Champions League final is in Cardiff. Imagine if they did not let them in. That is a big thing for us, if players from England can travel anywhere but players from other teams cannot travel to England. With free movement in Europe, it is much better.

“Even in 2020, if ‘Brexit’ has happened, then it can be a big problem for fans. That stays firm, and we will speak to the British government, and I am sure the English Football Association will help us.”

New York Times Service

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