Neither the USA’s (ugh!) nor Canada’s national soccer teams qualified to play in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off tomorrow in Russia. But those two countries, along with 2018 participant Mexico, hit the soccer/football jackpot this morning when they won a vote among 200 FIFA member countries to host the 2026 World Cup, defeating Morocco, 134 votes to 65 (1 voted for neither). Sustainability was one of the metrics upon which both bids were judged and the so-called United Bid was the clear winner on that count.
With that in mind, we are pleased to re-run our interview with Rita Ricobelli, Sustainability Director of the United Bid which first ran on May 4.
Rita Ricobelli: Great question, Lew. Growing up in San Francisco, a small town near the city of Cordoba in Argentina, I developed a passion for soccer (or futbol), even though there were no soccer leagues in which girls were allowed to play … Nevertheless, I became a big fan of Boca Juniors, one of the two biggest teams in my country.
GSB: River Plate being their big rivals…
RR: We don’t talk about them 🙂 Fast forward to early adulthood. Interested in global development, I got my Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). During that time, I formed an amateur soccer team, which is still part of the New York Women’s Metropolitan Soccer League. Given my passion for sports (I also grew-up playing tennis), my first job after graduate school was at a sports and media platform in New York City, which included the Pan-American Sports Network (PSN).
GSB: What is the Pan-American Sports Network?
RR: It was a Spanish-Portuguese language sports network in Latin America, with significant soccer content, as part of a sports media and marketing platform based in the US. It was a great working experience but the network was sold (a lot of its content was passed over to Fox). Then I pivoted again, workwise.
GSB: What did that pivot entail?
Rita Ricobelli, sustainability director for the United Bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, at FIFA’s world headquarters in Switzerland (Photo credit: Rita Ricobelli)
RR: I went to work for a New York-based educational NGO, then moved back to Argentina for a year, consulting for the Columbia Business School down there, where I also experienced sports in a fascinating way that was new to me: to engage at-risk youth. I came back to New York in 2006, determined to work on Sustainable Development and the potential application of sports in this quest. In 2007, I joined Columbia’s Earth Institute.
GSB: …Led by economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs…
RR: …At the time, yes. I was hired by the Earth Institute to help manage its international research, education and applied-research initiatives, including the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), a very ambitious endeavor based on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The MVP involved multidisciplinary scientists and collaborators working alongside more than 100 communities, mainly in Africa, on health, agriculture, education, infrastructure, and business development projects. Community engagement, in some cases, was a challenge, and that is when I proposed the use of sports, particularly soccer, as an engaging platform. Many academics were skeptical about linking scientific projects with soccer. But, some understood the opportunity and provided support, including Dr. Sachs, as well as Sree Sreenivasan, a visionary alum, and Dr. Safwan Masri.
GSB: So how did you get from working on the Millennium Villages Project with the Earth Institute to managing sustainability for the United Bid of Canada, Mexico and the United States to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup?
RR: My first involvement with a World Cup bid was in 2009, advising the U.S. bid team on an innovative proposition to combine soccer with social and environmental science-based projects. Together with Columbia University experts, we developed initiatives to work — through soccer — on STEM education and childhood obesity — through urban planning models — in the U.S. and on youth health and other sustainability areas in developing countries, to be included in the U.S.’ 2022 World Cup Bid Book.
GSB: …”Bid Books” being another way to say proposal for an interested country or countries to be considered as a host of the FIFA World Cup…And the 2022 World Cup, despite a wonderful proposal, was awarded to Qatar. We could get into that decision by FIFA but that would take away from the focus of this story, the sustainability facets of the 2026 United Bid…so we won’t!
RR: Yes. I am fortunate to have this extraordinary opportunity as part of the 2026 United Bid Committee of Canada, Mexico and the United States. The sustainability requirements for our current bid book are a lot more detailed and follow international sustainability standards more tightly prescriptive than in prior World Cup cycles, including new human rights and labor sections, as well as the application of international sustainability standards.
GSB: Talk more about the 2026 bid — how it became a United bid, your involvement on the sustainability side, the bid’s highlights as they compare to your lone competitor, Morocco, and where things stand about six weeks away from the decision.
RR: The 2026 FIFA World Cup will be the largest in the event’s history, expanding from the current 32 to 48 participating countries, and a total of 80 matches. Host countries will need to provide more stadiums and modern infrastructure as well as the ability to support larger populations of local/global fans. That is why Canada, Mexico and the United States came together in April 2017, to combine their resources, experience and capacity, to be UNITED, AS ONE.
It has been an incredible sprint: an exciting and intense proposition, requiring a 24-7 commitment. We only received the final bid requirements in October last year, five months before the Bid submission deadline.
GSB: …Holy cow! That’s only eight months before the bid will be awarded! Now I get your 24-7 comment! Had prior U.S. bids had a sustainability director or is this United Bid a first?
RR: It is a first and that’s largely thanks to John Kristick, executive director for the 2026 United Bid. He was already very supportive of the sustainable development agenda in the previous Bid (as managing director), understanding that sustainability is a key issue not only for the event but for the sport at large. He has an extensive track record in sports, particularly in soccer. Having a director of sustainability was in his management plan from the very beginning as he saw it as an essential role.
GSB: I’ll say! What are the main sustainability initiatives for 2026?
RR: The last three sections of our Bid Book, which your readers can access online (click here), are devoted to sustainability in its broadest definition. Section 22 includes our proposal for a sustainable event management system, based on ISO 20121, and other international standards. ISO 20121 takes into account social, economic and environmental areas, including governance and other aspects to sustainably manage the World Cup. Section 23 details our human rights and labor strategy, including an extensive human rights risk assessment. Section 24 is devoted to environmental protection and enhancement. As our Bid proposition does not include the need to build any new stadiums (EDITOR’S NOTE: Morocco would have had to build eight new stadia!], we can then focus on other hosting priorities, including sustainability aspects.
GSB: …The most energy efficient stadium is the one you don’t have to build…
RR: Exactly. The three key themes of our bid are Unity, Certainty and Opportunity. The fact that all 23 stadiums in our bid — a list that will be culled down to 16 for the tournament — are already built is a foundation of its certainty. All stadiums will have an environmental certification by 2025, which is one of FIFA’s requirements. But, our commitment is to go beyond FIFA’s requirements. That is why we proposed a Sustainability+ strategy, looking to set a new standard for mega-sporting events and to maximize soccer’s contribution in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We will strive to offer an event that is carbon neutral and zero-waste, with no loss of biodiversity. Carbon emissions and water usage, as well as transportation will be managed from a best-in-class sustainability perspective. Healthy, sustainably produced food and beverage options will be available at all of our venues. Goods and services will be sourced via a sustainable procurement process.
Iconic Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, one of three Mexican venues that will play host to matches in the 2026 FIFA World Cup as part of the United Bid (Photo credit: Sportsnet.ca)
Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta is one of three Canadian venues that will host matches during the 2026 FIFA World Cup (Photo credit: Daily Hive)
MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands of New Jersey is rumored to be the host of the championship match of the 2026 FIFA World Cup (Photo credit: New York Daily News)
GSB: From what I understand of Morocco 2026’s plan, all of their stadiums will either need to be built or renovated, which is a massive difference between the bids, sustainability-wise and otherwise. As far as transportation is concerned, if history is any guide, getting people to and from the three countries will make up the lion’s share of carbon emissions for your bid.
RR: You’re right. In fact 85 percent of emissions are projected to be transportation-related, with 51 percent resulting from international travel and 34 percent coming from inter and intra-city travel. Therefore, we have proposed a Carbon Management Plan, including reporting and reviewing of carbon reduction opportunities, training and awareness, offsetting and mitigation strategies. We will provide low-emissions transportation options for players, officials, the media, fans, and other visitors. Cycling and walking will also be encouraged.
GSB: I expect that, by 2026, EVs and EBuses will be in far greater supply than they are now. Finally, it wouldn’t be a GreenSportsBlog interview about a mega-sports event without a question about fan engagement. Here goes: What is the 2026 United Bid team’s plan for fan engagement on environmental sustainability?
RR: What a wonderful last question. We presented a Fan Engagement section, which was not part of the Bid requirements. Focused on sports for development, marketing and business, the section proposed the crafting of new approaches to connecting with fans, refining new methods of fan activation and testing what works and what doesn’t. In connection to sustainability, we hope to better harness the passion of fans towards sustainable development, which is a topic very close to my heart. I have worked with behavioral science experts, including Dr. Elke Weber, on opportunities to foster positive behavior change through sports, particularly soccer. A focus has been improving the communication of sustainability aspects to fans as well as their level of engagement on these issues. So, there are definitely a lot of interesting opportunities to further engage and empower fans to support sustainability.
GSB: I look forward to discussing that platform in the not-too-distant future. Good luck in Moscow on June 13!
RR: Thank you! I look forward to future discussions and tante grazie!
POSTSCRIPT #1: Here is a photo taken at today’s FIFA Congress in Moscow. Delegates from the United Bid of Canada, Mexico and the United States celebrate after winning the vote to host the 2026 World Cup
Victory! (Photo credit: Pavel Golovkin/AP)
POSTCRIPT #2: FIFA announced that no decision has been made on whether Canada, Mexico and the USA will all have guaranteed spots in the tournament. It has been customary for the host nation to be able to bypass the qualification process and gain an automatic bid into the World Cup. But there has never been a World Cup with three host countries. However, the 2026 World Cup will see the field expanded from the current 32-team format to 48, so that will make it easier for FIFA to provide three automatic bids.
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