With the sheer amount of politicking that came out of the FIFA presidential campaign, it was inevitable that some juicy subplots would emerge. One such rumor gained enough traction that the new president had to bat it down.
Gianni Infantino made it clear over the weekend that he did not, in fact, promise the 2026 World Cup to the United States in exchange for helping him win the presidency.
US Soccer chief Sunil Gulati was in attendance for FIFA’s Extraordinary Congress last Friday, where the election to replace Sepp Blatter was held. Gulati said the day before that the US would be supporting Prince Ali in the election. The public show of support didn’t amount to much, however; Prince Ali garnered 27 votes in the first ballot, a very distant third behind Infantino and Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman.
In between ballots the candidates met with various association presidents and other power brokers, working to either expand their coalition enough to carry them over the finish line or, in the case of Prince Ali, to act as kingmakers. One of the key constituents that Prince Ali could offer to Infantino was, of course, the US. And this is where things get interesting.
In comments after the election was over, Sunil Gulati said that he and Infantino had a pre-existing arrangement.
Which, of course, is what happened. Gulati supported Infantino in the second ballot and encouraged other Ali supporters to do the same. Infantino won the election with room to spare.
In the immediate aftermath, rumors started circulating that Infantino was able to secure the US’ support because he promised them the 2026 World Cup. The rumors picked up some steam, enough that they spawned a counter-narrative that Infantino had in fact played Gulati for a sucker.
At the very least, it sounds halfway plausible at first blush due to the allegations (from none other than Sepp Blatter) that Russia peddled in favors to win hosting rights for 2018.
But Infantino, desperate to distance himself from the corruption and misconduct of both his payola-happy predecessor and the organization he’s now in charge of, put the kibosh on that particular rumor. When asked about how he got the US to support him, he said, “I spoke with many delegates… trying to tell them that they should vote for football and for me.” And when asked if he made promises to the US regarding 2026 he said, “No, certainly not.”
It’s not that surprising that Infantino is already having to field questions about corruption under his watch. A dive into our FIFA tag will show you just how deep that rabbit hole goes, and that the culture of impropriety in soccer’s global governing body is more far-reaching than even Sepp Blatter’s sphere of influence. FIFA didn’t just magically stop being FIFA because they got a new president. If Infantino is indeed a force for change and reform— and there’s plenty of reason to believe he isn’t; his work to undo decades of corruption will take a very long time. In other words, Infantino is going to be fielding questions like this for quite a while.