When the World Cup comes to Kansas City, tough questions will follow

December 9, 2022 3:33 am
The U.S. men’s national soccer team warms up before a friendly match against the national team of Uruguay on June 5, 2022, at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Eric Thomas)

The U.S. men’s national soccer team warms up before a friendly match against the national team of Uruguay on June 5, 2022, at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Eric Thomas)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Last weekend, the team representing the United States at the World Cup in Qatar crashed out of the tournament following a 3-1 loss against the Netherlands.

As a fan, I have tracked this team from qualifying in CONCACAF to pre-tournament friendlies, from the group stage into the knockout round, monitoring the pre-match lineups and coaching decisions. Even my soccer-crazed son might have rolled his eyes at the arcane statistics I recited to him, likely from one of the dozens of podcasts, articles or videos I gobbled up.

Besides the results for the U.S. men’s national team, the other dominant storyline from the World Cup has little to do with assists, corner kicks or xG. Counterintuitively, this second storyline might determine the success of the 2026 World Cup in the United States even more than the wins, losses and ties of our national team.

The referee’s final whistle at Khalifa International Stadium signaled the start of a new storyline. The next World Cup match that the U.S. will play will likely be at home — in the United States.

This storyline is the stew of political hijinks and squabbles that flooded the World Cup this year. That storyline includes how journalists have covered (or failed to cover) the politics of this multibillion dollar global sports event.

With Kansas City hosting games for the 2026 event, our region will be dipped into that World Cup stew. As local journalists, many of us will decide how to cover it.   

One thing is certain: This year’s World Cup has provided lessons on what not to do as both a host nation and as journalists. Let’s study the lessons now for 2026, so we don’t make the same blunders.

We start with the profit-driven cowardice of Fox Sports. In the years preceding the Qatar World Cup, FIFA and the host nation generated so many newsworthy controversies: accusations of bribes to FIFA, anti-gay laws in Qatar and the deaths of foreign workers. The question for Fox Sports, the broadcast rights holder in the United States, was how it would cover these juicy narratives during the match telecasts.

How would they cover the diplomatic tensions between the competing countries? Perhaps, they would cover international flaps — like the social media staff of the U.S. team foolishly removing a portion of the Iran flag on some social media posts — during pregame segments. Or perhaps we would hear the in-match commentators interject the news into their play-by-play.

Fox Sports made short work of that decision by simply opting not to cover any of it.

Their possible motive? The Washington Post reported that Fox Sports agreed to a sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways. That funding (and perhaps some complementary airfare for Fox Sports staff) may have enabled the broadcaster to set up a swank studio in Qatar rather than anchoring coverage from Los Angeles. 

Who owns the airline? Qatar itself, suggesting an unsightly quid pro quo. A Fox Sports spokesman told the Post that the network did not agree to censor its political coverage in exchange for the Qatar Airways sponsorship deal.

However, contrast Fox Sports’ editorial spinelessness with the words of Telemundo Deportes president Ray Warren about how his network would cover World Cup politics: “I do think we have to talk about the legacy we leave. By the time the tournament’s over, we (won’t have been) ignoring the geopolitical issues that might arise.”

I doubt that an American sponsor in 2026 will make such a brazen attempt to neuter a media outlet, at least partially because of how embarrassing this incident has been for Fox Sports.

Millions of sponsorship dollars will flood the Kansas City region. Might a sponsor ask a local publication or broadcaster to weaken its scrutiny with a wink? How might an advertiser discourage honest coverage through a financial nudge?

– Eric Thomas

However, millions of sponsorship dollars will flood the Kansas City region. Might a sponsor ask a local publication or broadcaster to weaken its scrutiny with a wink? How might an advertiser discourage honest coverage through a financial nudge?

“World Corrupt,” a podcast series that has chronicled the hypocrisy and corruption of this World Cup, summarized what it looks like to watch the coverage of a World Cup that has been artificially sweetened.

“It is basically the Splenda of international tournaments,” co-host Tommy Vietor half-joked.

Fewer controversies should ignite in the run-up to the World Cup in North America. However, smoke-free skies can’t be guaranteed with a flammable international syndicate like FIFA.

Because Kansas City will host matches, we should also expect that the visiting foreign press will zoom in on the blemishes of Missouri, Kansas and the Midwest. As the only host city in the central United States, our local site will stand in for all of middle America in news coverage. You could travel west from Pennsylvania to California, and the only host city you would pass would be KC.

Of course, we want our region to be a great place to live for the sake of, well, being a great place to live. However, if we need any extra motivation, maybe we will clean up our room before the house guests come to visit.

Consider, for example, the local headlines that the foreign press might have seized on during the last month. A recent Shawnee shooting resulted in charges for four teens. Alleged corruption in the Kansas City, Kansas, police department allowed an officer to terrorize citizens. A small town nearly shuttered its library because it included books about LGBTQ lives.

If we need any proof that the visiting press will care about these stories, note how the American press is rightfully scrutinizing the death of a foreign worker in Qatar this week.

We should also prepare ourselves for absurd questions from hostile journalists with an agenda. Here’s how they grilled the U.S. team captain Tyler Adams about racism in America, after chiding him for his pronunciation of Iran.

“Are you OK to be representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people in its own borders?” a reporter for Iran’s state-controlled TV station asked during a pre-match press conference.

Or — even more bonkers — how the same press gaggle asked U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter for his take on the position of U.S. warships.

Everything will be inbounds. We, as Americans and Midwesterners, will need answers.

Adams’ response to the grilling by the Iranian press displayed the kind of eloquence and patience that our politicians and players will need in 2026.

“There’s discrimination everywhere you go,” he said. “In the U.S., we’re continuing to make progress every single day … through education. I think it’s super important. Like you just educated me now on the pronunciation of your country. It’s a process. As long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”

Or, perhaps we need to all practice the kind of deflection that Berhalter used.

“I don’t know enough about politics; I’m a soccer coach,” Berhalter said, dodging a foreign affairs kerfuffle.

As hosts, we will need to do a bit of each: toughen our skin, clean up our affairs and provide thoughtful and patient answers.

Like the team itself, we will need some practice to prepare for the World Cup in Kansas City. The 2026 summer of soccer and all its controversial storylines are coming, along with the goals and celebrations.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.