World News

Can the World Cup Restore Harmony Between Canada and the U.S.?

Posted June 13, 2018 8:18 p.m. EDT

MONTREAL — Canadians were still recovering from the verbal daggers President Donald Trump lobbed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at last weekend’s Group of 7 summit meeting in Quebec when the news came that the newly minted frenemies will join Mexico to jointly host the 2026 World Cup.

As it is, Canadians are not exactly known for their international soccer prowess; the men’s soccer team is ranked 79th in the world.

And they had been digesting the incongruous image of Trump courting a North Korean dictator only hours after he had called their famously mild-mannered leader “very dishonest and weak” and a top Trump trade adviser had said “there’s a special place in hell” for Trudeau.

But on Wednesday, a jubilant Trump, fresh from his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, appeared to signal, however obliquely, that soccer could unify Canada and its erstwhile best friend.

“The U.S., together with Mexico and Canada, just got the World Cup,” he wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations — a great deal of hard work!”

Trudeau was equally effusive. “It’s going to be a great tournament,” he wrote on Twitter.

For Canadians, by nature a forgiving people, the glamour and prestige of being host to the men’s World Cup for the first time appeared to supersede a festering trade dispute, including an acrimonious battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement, a cornerstone of trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which Trump has threatened to scrap.

Steven Reed, president of the Canadian Soccer Association, called the decision by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to grant the games to Canada, Mexico and the United States “an extraordinary honor and privilege.”

Canada’s previous effort to be host of the World Cup, in 1986, ended in tatters; in 2015, it hosted the women’s equivalent.

Mayor Valérie Plante of Montreal, and John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, whose two cities have been vying to hold some of the games, turned to Twitter in triumph. “We won! The 2026 World Cup is coming to Canada, the U.S. & Mexico!” Tory proclaimed.

It is coming to one host in a far bigger way than to the other two. Sixty of the tournament’s 80 matches will be held in the United States as will the quarterfinals, semifinals and the final. Canada and Mexico will each hold 10 matches.

Declan Hill, a Canadian who has written two best-selling books on international soccer and organized crime, pointed out that despite the rejoicing among Canadian soccer officials, and the growing popularity of soccer here, Canada was, at heart, a hockey-loving nation.

The professed excitement over being host to the World Cup, he added, reflected a sort of “sports transvestitism” in which Canadians were pretending to be something they are not.

“We have hockey in our DNA — not soccer,” he said. “It is humiliating to see our countrymen pretending to be Argentinian or German.”

Canadian men have qualified for only one World Cup — in 1986. But Canada’s women’s soccer team has been soaring.

Whether Canada and the United States can patch up their Trump-inspired squabble may be beside the point because FIFA has been clawing back control of the tournament.

While FIFA awards the World Cup, runs the competition and collects most of the profits from it, the local organizing committee of the host country has been responsible for the details — preparing the stadiums, training sites and hotels; hiring the thousands of volunteers needed to run the event; and navigating the myriad, and often thorny, interactions with federal, state and local governments.

Starting in 2022, FIFA will take that entire process in house so it can have better control of the events that it owns.

Besides, eight years is a long time for two old friends to patch things up, and both Trump and Trudeau face elections before the global soccer tournament, Trudeau next year, and Trump in 2020.

Terry Fallis, a Canadian satirical novelist for whom Canada-U.S. relations are a central theme, said the notion of Canada and the United States as co-hosts of the World Cup sounded like a comic sitcom when the countries were sniping at one another. But he argued that the World Cup could overcome even a disrupter like Trump.

“The World Cup is a perfect example of how countries can work together without Trump getting in the way,” he said. “Canada is ideally suited to host the World Cup as we are a multicultural country that brings people from all over the world together — just as the World Cup does.”