What the 2026 World Cup Could Do for America’s 250th Birthday Celebration

In eight years, the soccer tournament will come to the U.S. just as we mark a major anniversary, providing an opportunity that can’t be missed

Amber Silvani holds up a USA banner as United States fans watch the 2014 World Cup soccer match
American soccer fans watch the 2014 World Cup. ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1976, the commemoration of the United States’ bicentennial shared anew the patriotic story of the nation’s founding. It featured a veritable explosion of Americana, as corporations fed an emergent U.S. consumerism with star-spangled just about everything. For many, the lasting image of the bicentennial was the arrival of the Tall Ships in ports up and down the eastern seaboard.

But, amid the Watergate scandal and the wounds of the Vietnam War, the country was also deeply skeptical of a top-down national commemoration that uncritically celebrated America. As the “new social history” movement took hold within the academy and the ranks of activists and organizers grew, groups around the country—women, African-Americans, native peoples, and others—rejected superficial celebrations and often took commemoration efforts into their own hands.

Indeed, for all the pomp and circumstance, the bicentennial commemoration fell short when it came to actual history. For the most part, it was marked by glorifying the Founding Fathers and only the shallowest of engagement with the Revolution’s legacy. National planners and corporations were more interested in shilling nostalgia than encouraging big questions about U.S. history and what it meant to be American.

Eight years from now, Americans will have another chance to commemorate the events of founding era when the United States observes its 250th, or “semiquincentennial,” anniversary. Yet when 2026 arrives, much of the world will have its eyes glued to the U.S. for another reason: that summer, the country will co-host the World Cup with Canada and Mexico. The confluence of these two occasions represents an incredible opportunity to share an inclusive, relevant story about the American past, present and future.

The World Cup always represents a profound experience for national communities, particularly for immigrants and members of global diasporas. Writer Zito Madu recently explored this phenomenon, examining the complex experiences of immigrants watching the World Cup in the U.S. as they wrestle with questions about identity and national belonging. The World Cup, and one’s decision about which team to support, lays bare the tension between immigrants’ two identities: “that of where you live, and where you or your parents are from.”

These and similar questions also form a crucial thread in American history—and recent events, from family separation and detention at the southern border to President Donald Trump’s travel ban—have revealed that American immigration history is as relevant as ever.

World Cup matches will occur not just in Philadelphia and Boston, but around the country, offering an occasion to share stories from well beyond the “13 colonies.” Houston’s NRG Stadium, for example, is one of 17 American stadiums that could host a World Cup match in 2026; the city is also home to the country’s largest population of expatriates and descendants from Nigeria, one of the strongest African national teams. Houston cultural institutions could collaborate to develop exhibits on that community’s history—they could even share the stories inside the stadium itself, offering a wholly unique match-day experience. And if the city hosted a match featuring Nigeria’s famous Super Eagles, oral historians could set up operations outside the stadium to collect new histories from Nigerians and Nigerian Americans in attendance. It could be a chance for a single match to have a lasting impact and legacy.

The potential for this kind of history and cultural programming will exist everywhere matches are held. The World Cup and the 250th will make possible an unprecedented and large-scale engagement with the history of immigrant communities in the U.S. Whether for Vietnamese in San Jose or Germans in Cincinnati or Cubans in Miami, exhibits and programs created by local museums, historical societies and cultural organizations could become an indelible part of the semiquincentennial summer of 2026.

And with sufficient funding and preparation, institutions could even collaborate to develop traveling exhibits that move with the teams as they travel. Exhibits detailing the history of Mexicans and Koreans and Ghanaians in America could arrive in American stadiums with their respective national teams.

It’s imperative that the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence emphasizes an inclusive story about the American past, one that prioritizes engagement with communities from coast to coast. The American Association for State and Local History’s 250th anniversary task force has already begun working to plan creative and ambitious ways to make history relevant and accessible in 2026. And while I’d appreciate as much as anyone the symbolism of the U.S. men’s national team defeating England in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July, the coincidence must achieve something larger.

With the right partners, the right approach, and the right funding, the combination of the World Cup and the 250th anniversary offers us a chance to present a history that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people—all of them—when the world convenes in the U.S. in 2026.

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