NEW YORK — North America's historical ambivalence to soccer is no match for the spectacle of the 2026 World Cup, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Thursday, as he bids to make the world's "beautiful game" the preeminent sport in the region as well.
World soccer governing body FIFA announced the 16 cities — 11 in the United States, three in Mexico and two in Canada — that were successful from the 22 bids put forward in a special event at the Rockefeller Center in New York.
In televised remarks, Infantino boldly pledged that soccer would overtake all other sports in the region.
It's a tall task in North America, where baseball is long considered "America's pastime" and ice hockey Canada's religion, and only Mexico can reasonably claim soccer as king.
For Infantino, changing that is imperative — if not inevitable.
"This part of the world, these three countries you are leading the world in many areas," he told reporters. "But in the number one sport in the world, which is soccer or football, you are not – yet. And the objective must be that you will be leading the world as well in the world’s number one sport.
"By 2026 soccer or football will be the number one sport in this part of the world."
A record audience of more than 3.5 billion people watched the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the final between France and Croatia pulling in 1.12 billion viewers, underscoring the sport's enduring global appeal.
The 1994 World Cup, the last time the United States hosted, sparked a boom in popularity for soccer, with Major League Soccer kicking off its inaugural season two years later.
But the sport has not overtaken the big four men's professional leagues: Major League Baseball, the National Basketball League, National Football League and National Hockey League.
In fact many of the matches in 2026 will take place on reconfigured American football fields, as some now use artificial turf. The 2026 World Cup will be planned on natural grass.
But with passionate fans around the globe planning to travel, Infantino said the region was poised for a soccer revolution.
"This part of the world doesn’t realize what will happen here 2026 — I mean these three countries will be upside down and then flipped again back," said Infantino.
"The world will be invading Canada, Mexico, and the United States and they will be invaded by a big wave of joy and of happiness because that’s what football is about."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Additional reporting by Philip O'Connor and Rory Carroll; Editing by William Mallard)