Argument

If Trump Tears Up NAFTA, Sports Will Keep North America Together

The joint 2026 World Cup is yet another sign that Canada, Mexico, and the United States are becoming increasingly culturally and economically interdependent.

Fans cheer for Mexico during an international friendly soccer match against Croatia at AT&T Stadium on March 27 in Arlington, Texas.  (Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Fans cheer for Mexico during an international friendly soccer match against Croatia at AT&T Stadium on March 27 in Arlington, Texas. (Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) (Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

When Mexico’s national soccer team took down the defending World Cup champion, Germany, on Sunday, the celebrations in Mexico City set off a small artificial earthquake — a tremor strong enough to register on seismographic sensors. While nothing similar was reported north of the border, there were probably a few small artificial tremors in cities and towns across the United States, too. In a year when the U.S. team didn’t qualify for the World Cup, many Americans, including millions of Mexican descent, have adopted the team to the south, which Sports Illustrated recently called “America’s other team.”

But the 1-0 Mexico win over Germany wasn’t the only event that united soccer fans across the border last week. The United States, Mexico, and Canada also won their joint bid to host the World Cup in 2026, the ultimate symbol of how North America’s three countries have become not just good neighbors but indispensable partners on the global stage.

Yet the announcement came just as the governments of the three countries seemed to be starting down the path of a trade war. The North American Free Trade Agreement has been the economic glue that has tied the economies of the United States, Canada, and Mexico together for more than two decades, but U.S. President Donald Trump came into office calling NAFTA the “worst trade agreement ever” and vowing to renegotiate it.

Over the past month, negotiations among the three countries to revise the agreement have stagnated, and Trump slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on both Mexico and Canada at the beginning of June, prompting them to retaliate with limited tariffs on some U.S. food products and agricultural goods.

To make matters worse, only days before the World Cup announcement, Trump called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “weak” and “dishonest” after Trudeau defended his decision to apply retaliatory tariffs. And, of course, that statement was mild compared to some of the insults the U.S. president has hurled at Mexican immigrants and the nation of Mexico over the past couple years, a country he’d like to literally wall off from the United States.

All of this leads to the question of whether North America is drawing closer together, as the World Cup bid suggests, or pulling apart, as the political rhetoric would indicate. Over the past two decades, Mexico, the United States, and Canada have become more intertwined than anyone could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago. Trade flows among the three NAFTA countries have more than tripled, and the United States depends on the two neighboring countries as its two principal export markets, accounting for about a third of its trade.

Even more surprisingly, the three countries have become a single North American production platform. Many of their most important industries — such as appliances and cars — have become truly North American, with shared production taking place across the continent in an almost seamless shared manufacturing process. Today, it would be almost impossible to get in a car or truck or board a train or airplane in Canada, Mexico, or the United States that wasn’t built jointly by workers in all three countries.

This economic integration in North America has been one of the reasons why U.S. manufacturing has become so globally competitive, with total output rising by about 50 percent since the mid-1990s, after many analysts predicted its slow decline.

Manufacturing has risen in Canada and even more so in Mexico, where it’s helped raise wages by one-third and had a major impact on the development of the middle class. Most foreign car manufacturers stopped exporting vehicles to the United States and now prefer to build them in North America, as has happened with dozens of other industries.

But it’s not just economics. While the three economies were drawing closer together, so too were the three societies. And sports is one of the best lenses through which to view this process. The National Hockey League, despite its name, has long been binational. Although it was founded in Canada, it has been a joint Canadian and U.S. venture for nearly a century. Major League Baseball, too, has included at least one Canadian baseball team since the late 1960s, and this year, it began a long-term commitment to play games each season in Mexico, starting with a three-game series between the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers in Monterrey.

The National Basketball Association has also had at least one Canadian team since the mid-1990s, shortly after NAFTA went into effect, and in 2017 the NBA started to play regular-season games in Mexico, too, with four games scheduled in Mexico City last year and more to come this year.

The National Football League held regular games in Canada from 2008 to 2013, and since 2016 it has held regular-season games in Mexico City’s mammoth Estadio Azteca, part of a six-year commitment to bring the NFL to Mexico. These are always among the NFL’s largest audiences, and an earlier football game in the Estadio Azteca in 2005 ranks as one of the two highest-attended NFL regular-season games ever.

Soccer, too, has always tied North America together. While it has grown in popularity in Canada and the United States, it has long been the national pastime in Mexico, and Mexican fans have brought their enthusiasm for the game north of the border. Roughly one-fourth of Major League Soccer fans in the United States identify as Hispanic, a majority of them of Mexican origin, and MLS even featured a Mexican-owned team in the league’s early years. Soccer fandom has now spilled over to U.S. audiences of a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, as it has in Canada, even if they have a ways to go to match the earth-shaking enthusiasm of fans in Mexico.

The cultural ties between Canada and the United States are probably not surprising, and many of them, like the NHL, preceded NAFTA. After all, the two countries share a common heritage as former British colonies, English as an official language, and a similar level of economic development. But the growing U.S. cultural ties with Mexico are perhaps a bit more surprising given their very different histories, languages, legal systems, and levels of development. Before the United States and Mexico started down the path of greater economic integration, there was a substantial cultural distance and perhaps even more distrust on each side toward the other.

But much can change over two decades. Today, more than 10 percent of all people in the United States are of Mexican descent, and somewhere between 1 to 2 million U.S. citizens live in Mexico. Food, film, and, of course, sports have helped people become familiar with those in the country next door. And the more that people realize their economic fortunes are tied together, the more they have a reason to get to know their neighbors. The fact that four of the last five Oscars awarded for best director have gone to Mexican filmmakers only highlights how seamless the cultural landscape has become.

But politics has the potential to upend some of the progress toward greater collaboration and interdependence among the three countries of North America. It’s too early to know if the current tariff spat is just the prelude to further tough trade negotiations or the beginning of the end of NAFTA.

The safer bet is that NAFTA will survive in some form, but if Trump were to decide to pull the United States out of the trade agreement, it would have long-term consequences for all three countries. The common production platform they have built together would almost certainly survive intact for a while, because so many companies have made major investments in joint manufacturing across the continent, but over time some businesses would look elsewhere in the world to produce goods. All three would lose competitiveness, and some of the connective tissue among them would loosen, too.

But even the end of NAFTA — as improbable as that may be — would be unlikely to undo the growing cultural engagement among the three countries of North America. What started as an economic project has ended up sinking deep roots in the way average people relate to each other. And it has built common fan bases for everything from film to football. In that sense, the coming 2026 North American World Cup probably tells us more about North America’s future than Trump’s tirades against NAFTA do.

Andrew Selee is president of the Migration Policy Institute and author of Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together. Twitter: @SeleeAndrew

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