Hosting the 2026 World Cup will come at great human and moral cost to the U.S.
Federal agents, mass surveillance, ICE in the streets and an expanded police state come with the soccer games.
The 2026 World Cup is coming to the United States (as well as Mexico and Canada). That much was decided in 2018, but which cities get to play host will be announced on Thursday, with many watching with bated breath hoping that their community gets to welcome the world’s biggest sporting event in four years.
Unfortunately, welcoming the World Cup to your city also means welcoming a lot more than soccer to your city, much of which will come at great harm to those who live there. Hosting the World Cup, at least in the U.S., comes at spectacular harm for cities and especially its most vulnerable people.
The United States has the stadiums to host the World Cup without major upheaval, not to mention the training facilities, airports, hotels and all the other tangible, buildable things that often plague hosts. What it does not have is a society that is safe for its citizens, especially its most vulnerable, and the World Cup is going to unleash the worst of this country upon them.
As some people have known their whole lives and many others learned over the last few years, the U.S. is often governed by police that exercise the extraordinary power granted to them with impunity. They have a lengthy history of excessive violence, including murder, harassment and illegal surveillance, all funded with exorbitant sums of budgets that could go to schools, healthcare or any number of productive needs at a time when the country’s social services are being exposed as woefully inadequate.
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Unfortunately, the World Cup will send that into hyperdrive. The World Cup is almost certain to be designated a National Security Special Event (NSSE), which is what the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does for events they consider to be targets of potential terrorism. Normally that tag is placed upon presidential inaugurations, party conventions or meetings of world leaders, but Super Bowl XXXVI was an NSSE because it was the first after September 11, 2001 and so was the 2002 Winter Olympics1. The 2026 World Cup and 2028 Summer Olympics will also almost certainly carry the NSSE tag.
As an NSSE, security will be coordinated by DHS, and the bid specified that DHS would take the lead on security for the World Cup. That will include heavy police2, surveillance expansion and National Guard and/or Coast Guard presence. They prepare for basic crowd control, but also worst case scenarios. As part of their coordination with local police departments, DHS help fund massive increases in equipment for the police.
Life in a World Cup host city during the tournament will not simply be soccer games, adidas and Visa sponsored events, and watch parties. It will also mean the military around town, marksmen perched on rooftops and a heavy Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) presence in the streets.
This is not theoretical, to be clear. It is what happened at recent Super Bowls, including this February, which has been called a “mini test run” for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics.
So on top of the troops, the weapons and the massive surveillance that will touch every inch and resident of the host cities, there will be federal immigration officers walking through streets and on transit, even if you are a “sanctuary city3.” The danger that poses to huge swaths of the host cities is immeasurable, especially for the 45 million immigrants in the U.S., but terrifying considering the immigration policies that outraged people when they were carried out by the Obama Administration, and then the Trump Administration, and now the Biden Administration.4
DHS, CBP and ICE use human trafficking and counterfeit merchandising as their reasoning for patrolling the streets en masse, harassment and apprehension, but there is no evidence of human trafficking at such events, as watchdog groups have proven time and time again. Counterfeit merchandising, while it exists, does not call for the mass patrolling of streets and harassment of people either.
What CBP and ICE engage in at major sporting events, and will engage in at the World Cup, is widespread fear mongering, harassment, apprehension and deportation, with a debunked issue like human trafficking as cover for their terror.
While the organizing committee and FIFA try to sell this as a World Cup of diversity, notably pushing their partnership with Mexico in hosting the tournament, the country will be targeting people, especially Latinos, from those countries in the name of the World Cup. Harassment, violence, deportation and family separation become not just more of a threat for many of those “diverse” people, but the trauma of those officers patrolling the streets lasts not just a lifetime, but is intergenerational.
Few people in our country are more vulnerable than immigrants, whether they are here with documents or not. They are under constant threat, especially brown and black immigrants, but arguably even more vulnerable and threatened are the scores of unhoused people across the country.
As of 2020, estimates pegged the unhoused population in the U.S. at over a half million people and it is growing. Unfortunately, there is little reason to expect it to improve by 2026, with housing prices skyrocketing, education faltering and the social safety net being cut further seemingly each day.
The 2026 World Cup will come with sweeps of unhoused people in host cities. Police will move them from their tents and, in many cases, take away their tents and belongings. The little they have, be it makeshift shelter, sanitary products or clothing will be tossed.
It happens every day in this country to unhoused people as is, but it will be ramped up for the World Cup, just as it is for Super Bowls5, All-Star Games and other major American sporting events that are meant to be a big party. After all, the sight of unhoused people brings down the mood and it’s been decided that the mood of the party matters more the humanity of our unhoused neighbors.
All unhoused people near a stadium, training facility, party area, sponsor event, watch party or fan walk could have their lives turned upside down. In Brazil, we were outraged as their government bulldozed poor communities for the 2014 World Cup and, four years earlier, South Africa was mocked for building walls next to roads dignitaries would take so they wouldn’t see the squalor some lived in.
In 2026, the United States will take people’s tents and belongings, shooing them away to other parts of town where they will not be seen and, if they show up in the wrong area again, arrest them. This is a country where sweeps of the unhoused are not just common now, but there has been a major and continued push to further criminalize homelessness.
The way this country targets immigrants and the unhoused is already cruel and inhumane. And the World Cup will escalate that pain even further.
The rest of it? The guardsmen, surveillance and heavy armory to prepare for a worst case scenario? Maybe that is reasonable to do.
After all, the World Cup is a massive event that very well could be a target for a terrorist attack. It’s not obscene to increase security and take measures to protect the event. Even if you hold that belief, the problem is what happens after the World Cup.
All of those tanks and weapons and modern surveillance equipment that will flow into the police departments of every host city to secure the World Cup? DHS does not take the equipment back. The New York Police Department, Dallas Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department6 and every other law enforcement agency involved in each host city keeps that equipment.
For decades after the World Cup, local police departments will have the functional tools of war brought to them by the tournament at their disposal to use against citizens.
The 1984 Olympics are a perfect example of how major sporting event “security” is used to sweep and incarcerate vulnerable people, most of whom are black and brown, to make the even look better. The Games empowered the Los Angeles Police Department, with the encouragement of city and Olympics officials, fueling the “War on Crime” that accelerated mass incarceration before, during and after7 the event, specifically targeting Black people. Some have even linked the expansion of the LAPD for the 1984 Olympics and their tactics in the aftermath8 to the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion because supercharged policing and a built-in excuse for aggressiveness doesn’t die when the games are over.
Unfortunately, simply securing an event from terrorist attacks in the U.S. is not limited to that, so you must ask yourself this question: do you want your city’s law enforcement to be emboldened and encouraged to wield outsized power for the World Cup and then have more war tools and surveillance that they can use on an everyday basis if they choose afterward? Because that is what the World Cup will bring.
Not only that, but while DHS may fund the purchase of that equipment for the 2026 World Cup, law enforcement will have to maintain it. The entirety of modern American history tells us the police will deem all of their new equipment essential and require that more equipment be bought in the decades to come to “maintain the current level of policing.” The money for that will not come from existing budget, but from an expanded budget, which every city in this country has handed to them at every ask, taking money from education, transit, roads and social services.
All of this will apply to police officers too, who will be hired at a greater rate to “secure” the World Cup, but will not be let go afterward. There will be more officers in every city and they will have to be paid by expanded budgets.
The United States already shows shades of being a pseudo police state, and the World Cup will make that worse in each city it touches9.
Criticism of the World Cup is nothing new. After all, it is organized by FIFA, which is one of the most corrupt sports organizations in the world, and that’s an extraordinarily high bar. The right to host the World Cup is mostly determined by bribery, as countless news organizations and the United States Department of Justice have shown us, and they can bring the legitimization of invading countries (hello, Russia 2018) or slave labor (Qatar 2022, looking at you).
What makes the United States hosting the 2026 World Cup a disaster is not those things or over-expansive building for a tournament that is unsustainable post-World Cup like we’ve seen elsewhere. It’s that, to put it simply, the U.S. is governed by the force of its unaccountable law enforcement officers, beset by racism and failing to support an ever-expanding population of unhoused people. The World Cup will not only exacerbate those problems, but unleash the worst of the country on its citizens under the guise of “security” for the 2026 tournament.
Does this make the World Cup an inherently un-hostable tournament anywhere? Maybe other countries can host the World Cup without building stadiums that will never be full again, and build roads without spectacular corruption, like the U.S. already has. And maybe some of those countries can also not bulldoze communities, provide for their vulnerable citizens, and keep its law enforcement in a reasonable realm where they truly do protect and serve, but the United States cannot.
The ills of this country are not revelatory. People have marched in the streets to demand that Black lives be protected. That women be protected. That immigrants not be demonized. That our unhoused neighbors be housed. That the police be accountable for their actions. That the government re-directs money from ineffective policing to its citizens.
The country has mobilized to deliver on next to none of those demands, but it did mobilize to put forth a successful bid to host the 2026 World Cup - a World Cup that will make worse nearly all of the nation’s ills that people marched in support of.
This doesn’t touch that FIFA will not pay taxes when it hosts the World Cup on our soil, or that it serves as a massive money laundering scheme, not to mention the fact that the people who set to profit from the World Cup are those who need it least in a country beset by horrifying income inequality.
And it is those beneficiaries who must be considered. FIFA, a notoriously corrupt and rightly demonized organization, will profit wildly. U.S. Soccer, which spent years fighting its own Women’s National Team demanding they be paid fairly and whose own record on race is sketchy, will rake in the cash. And billionaires, who own the stadiums, real estate, adjacent facilities and play the role of promoters, will walk away much richer. They are the ones who assure us that the costs to the immigrant, the unhoused and the average citizen are worth it.
When the U.S. bid to host the World Cup, they did so with the support of then-President Donald Trump. They rallied cities around the country to join the bid and lined up billionaires around the country to take up roles in the organization of the tournament. All of this continues to this day, with the same governmental entities and civic leaders participating in every step of the upcoming World Cup.
Considering who is involved in the 2026 World Cup and its inherently political nature, it is worth asking, where was the public process?
Do you remember public disclosures about the security needed for the 2026 World Cup, how people in the affected areas would be treated, hearings at the federal, state and local level to inform the public and start a public debate about whether the event was wanted? Of course not. Everyone tried to keep the public in the dark and sell the soccer and party.
Meanwhile, journalists have been happy to devote endless stories to the bidding process and horse race of which cities will be chosen to host, but have neglected to report on the real impacts that the tournament will have on people in the cities who will host. They chose to stick to sports.
That the entire bid and organization of the 2026 World Cup has been hidden, away from public disclosure and public debate, should be a warning sign. This should have been handled out in the open, from the first step to the last, as part of a clear democratic process where obfuscation and secrets did not rule the day, but then again, the United States is currently at war with democracy.
None of this is to say that you can’t watch the World Cup, or even go to it in 2026. After all, the World Cup is dirty by existence and we revel in it every four years anyway. There is very little ethical consumption in world sport anymore and everything comes with a cost, often to vulnerable people. We are all constantly trying to evaluate the malfeasance of what we engage with and how to navigate them in a way that feels comfortable to us, or at least as comfortable as possible. Everyone has to sort that out for themselves.
But while we have been eager to look at the ills of other recent World Cup hosts, or put up lawn signs and social media bios that purport to represent our values, we have seen an almost unanimous support for hosting a tournament in 2026 that would draw heavy criticism in another (likely less white) country and runs contrary to those values we espouse.
At a minimum, we must be honest about the event, and it is worth considering how “clean” the 2026 World Cup will be, just because the U.S. has the stadiums or doesn’t use slave labor. It’s worth thinking deeply about who is going to be harmed by hosting the tournament and what can be done to protect them. It is worth acknowledging who will profit and why the entire process has been hidden behind a curtain.
And then you have to consider, is having some games and fan fests within driving distance worth the threat, pain and drain on our people and society that the World Cup will bring?
Because this World Cup is not just a big party and some big soccer games coming to your city. It is much, much more than that, and it is deeply worrying.
Surveillance at the 2002 Winter Olympics, under the guise of a NSSE, was so perverse that the federal government was sued for data collection and spying that was alleged to violate people’s civil rights. Then Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson called the surveillance “Orwellian” and described it at the time as “the most massive, indiscriminate, warrantless, illegal spying on our citizens by the government, ever.”
There were more troops in Salt Lake City for the 2022 Winter Olympics than there were in Afghanistan.
Los Angeles went to great lengths to say they would not cooperate with ICE, but they did press conferences with them as their officers patrolled the streets.
This fear is further compounded by the United States Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Egbert v. Boule that federal law enforcement cannot personally be sued for excessive force under the fourth amendment, further eroding the rights of people against CBP and ICE, immigrant or not.
Sweeps of the unhoused in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl was called an attempt to “disappear the poor.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is filled with at least 18 functioning gangs who have allegedly killed 19 people.
“These resources and tactics didn’t disappear when the athletes left town. They would continue to be used for aggressive policing and punitive policies in the city’s most vulnerable communities in the years that followed. On Feb. 6, 1985, an LAPD SWAT team used a military-grade V-100 tank-like vehicle received from the Olympics and equipped with a 14-foot battering ram to smash down a wall of a suspected “rock house.” The officers found two women and three children eating ice cream, no guns, a small amount of marijuana and no cocaine.” - Washington Post
“Three years later, the LAPD engaged in massive anti-gang sweeps known as Operation Hammer, which led to the arrest of 24,684 mostly African American youths, often without cause, and involved detaining them for 24 hours in a specially constructed holding facility at the Coliseum. By the early 1990s, black men had routine contact with the criminal justice system. A study by the Los Angeles County Adult Detention Center found that nearly a third of black men ages 20 to 29 in the county had been arrested at least once in 1991.” - Washington Post
This is especially galling for Kansas City, Missouri, a city that does not have control of its police. The state of Missouri controls the Kansas City Police Department, acting with impunity and often against the wishes of the city. In fact, city officials, from the mayor to the city council, have waged a campaign to wrestle back control, only to be beaten back by courts and the state. And yet those same local officials want to host the World Cup and supercharge a police department they say is unresponsive to its people and, all too often, a danger to its people. Baltimore is the only other major American city that does not have local control of its police, and they are also bidding to host the World Cup, but they are expected to gain local control before 2026.