WASHINGTON – By now Victor Montagliani and Colin Smith are quite accustomed to being wooed.

They're leading the FIFA delegation currently undertaking a nine-city tour of prospective host venues for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, the first of at least two whirlwind trips across North America that will be replicated over the next month or two with points further to the west, north and south across the US, Canada and Mexico.

Everywhere they go, they're welcomed warmly, plied with meals, cultural experiences and passionate cases for why each particular community is a can’t-miss destination for the biggest-ever edition of the biggest sporting event on the planet – in addition to the nuts and bolts of stadium tours and other site visits to gauge the infrastructure required to host World Cup matches.

Seventeen US cities are officially in the mix, as well as three in Mexico and two in Canada, vying for one of what was originally slated to be 16 host venues for the expanded 48-team tournament. The competition is fierce and entering its home stretch.

“This week we'll have done nine cities; we'll do another, I think approximately nine in October, and then [in November] we'll finish off the remaining that are left, mainly in Canada and Mexico,” explained Montagliani, head of Concacaf and a FIFA vice president, in a Sunday press event in downtown Washington, D.C. during the delegation’s visit to the US capital city.

“Then that's all collected and all our due diligence will be done at the FIFA level, and then we're looking at the early part of next year, sort of a January-February type of timeframe, to announce our host cities.”

Montagliani and Smith, FIFA’s chief tournaments and events officer, are highly diplomatic and loathe to say anything that might appear to compromise the process or their objectivity. But the duo gave out a few tidbits in a brief Q&A with journalists at the International Spy Museum. Perhaps most notably, they left the door ajar for Vancouver to make a late return to this process after British Columbia officials, citing cost concerns, removed the picturesque Canadian city from contention in 2018.

Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics and BC Place, the home of Whitecaps FC, was a key venue in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, including the tournament final memorably lit up by Carli Lloyd and the US women’s national team. The province’s current leadership expressed interest in renewing the bid in the wake of Montréal’s withdrawal in July. Earlier this year Smith reiterated FIFA are focused only on the officially bidding venues, but Montagliani – who wryly acknowledged he’s a Vancouver resident – admitted the governing body has previously ushered in such late-breaking changes.

“I think Colin’s spot on [with how] we are officially dealing with this. It's also official that at the end of the day, FIFA will make decisions in the best interests of the World Cup. It has done in the past, there's precedents in terms of how we do that,” said the Concacaf president. “But at this moment in time, our focus is on the [active bid] cities.”

The original North American 2026 proposal, dubbed a “United bid” across the three nations despite the USA slated to host 60 of its 80 matches and the lion’s share of the knockout rounds, included three venues apiece for Canada and Mexico. Montréal’s departure leaves the northerners with just Edmonton and Toronto at present, thus adding Vancouver would seem to reduce the number of US cities from 11 to 10. But Montagliani cautioned against extrapolating along those lines.

“There is no knock-on effect,” he said. “We haven't really nailed down on the number [of venues] that's required, because the other thing that we are looking at is the match schedule. The match schedule is very important. We're probably in iteration, draft number 18 of 56. It's a Herculean effort to do a match schedule at the best of times and now with 80 matches, it's Herculean plus. So that all has to be integrated when we make these decisions.

“So it's not that one drops out, all of a sudden ‘one may come back in, if one's not over here, that means one more for this country.’ That's not the way we're looking at it at all.”

Smith spoke of the vital role host communities play in successful World Cups, while also giving top priority to the stadiums and training facilities where the sport will actually be played.

“In all the cities, what is really important is for us to look at what's the previous experience of hosting major events,” said the Englishman. “It's the integration of the agencies and the collaboration of the different parties that go into the successful delivery of major events, and that certainly stands cities such as D.C. in very good stead.

“We're seeing the stadium this afternoon, and ultimately the World Cup is all-encompassing when it comes to cities, but it happens on the pitch, in the stadiums. And this is absolutely fundamental for us. The World Cup, it's watched by millions around the world because it's the best football in the world, played by the best players in the world, and what we need to do is to provide them the best playing surfaces and the best facilities in the world, be that the stadiums, be that the training sites. So that's what we look at, everything together.”