By Michael Lewis
A stadium is the center piece of any bid for any tournament, especially for the World Cup.
You don’t have the right stadium to hold matches, it doesn’t matter how good your transportation system or hotels are. But if a tie-breaker is needed, those are vital factors when push comes to shove.
“We look at the full picture,” FIFA chief tournaments and events officer Colin Smith said Monday during a media conference call a day prior to a World Cup virtual workshop with the 17 perspective cities. “We look at the roads, we look at the airports, we look at the hotels, transport concept, the mobility concept. We obviously look at human rights, sustainability, stake holder engagement processes, in each of the host cities.”
Smith said that it “really paints a whole picture.”
“Part of that is what a host city wants to achieve from hosting this World Cup,” he added. “What can this World Cup bring to them as much as what city can bring to us? What are they looking to get out of it and what big events have they hosted in the past? There’s no one golden thread … that runs through a perfect host city, stadium. It’s really an integration of many different factors that we look at.”
The first and final words
FIFA will have the first and last words on what venues are selected for the 2026 World Cup, said Smith. After all, it’s FIFA’s baby, FIFA’s tournament.
But you might want to consider the three host countries of the first tri-nation hosted World Cup as super senior consultants because they know the ins and outs of many of the candidates’ cities.
U.S. Soccer, Mexico and Canada as well, they are key partners throughout this process,” Smith said, “and will be integral to it. The final decision will be a FIFA decision. But the journey and the process and the recommendations and working through the different aspects in terms of the landscape of what it means for football in the U.S., obviously, U.S. Soccer is a crucial and critical partner of ours throughout the entire process.”
Added former U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, who retired last year, and who was on the call representing the federation: “I think U.S. Soccer will have significant influence. The final say is ultimately FIFA’s.”
Set in stone
The 10 World Cup venues that will be selected is set in stone, Smith said. No more, no less.
“We’re conducting the process in line with the bid book and bid process as it stood,” he said. “That indicated 10 and that certainly is the premise in which we are embarking on the selection process.”
Staying the course
There will be no additions to the 17 candidates. During the conference call, Smith was asked if Chicago wanted to throw its hat into the ring, would the Windy City be added.
“We’ve got 17 fantastic cities,” he said. “There is a great depth there, right away across the U.S.. We’re looking forward to making the selection from those 17 cities.”
FIFA wants to spread out the tournament and not have too many venues in any one corner of the country. We can narrow them down to the East, South, Midwest and Texas as one, and West.
The East boasts five candidates – Baltimore, Boston, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. That doesn’t mean all will selected. Most likely, three, perhaps four at the most. Since New York/New Jersey is considered a lock, it looks like there will be a battle between the nation’s capital and Baltimore because of how close those two cities are. Philadelphia and Boston don’t have the same proximity, but depending on how other prospective venues fare, one of those could be cut.
Down South, there’s four candidates – Atlanta, Nashville, Miami and Orlando. Given how close the Florida cities and Atlanta and Nashville are, it could come down to a battle between them for two spots.
Out in the Midwest and Texas (the Central Time Zone), there’s four cities vying for World Cup fame – Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City . With so few slots available, it could come down to a Texas showdown between Dallas and Houston and farther up north, a battle between Cincy and Kansas City.
On the West Coast, there’s also four candidates – Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay and Seattle. If LA is considered a lock like NY/NJ, that would leave perhaps as few as two places. Placing a venue in the Mountain Time Zone in Denver might sound enticing to FIFA. And Seattle, which has for the past decade the most impressive bunch of supporters in Major League Soccer, could be the determining factor that could sway FIFA.
“There is nothing set in stone from our point of view,” Smith said. “We want to look at this as … the whole picture. We want to look at the clustering, the locations of the venues, the time zones. We also look at the climatic conditions in terms of the timing of matches, the heat in certain matches at certain times of the day. Ultimately, what we’re looking to do is to come up with together with U.S. Soccer the best list of stadiums for hosting this tournament.”
MetLife Stadium would be considered a strong candidate to host the final. It meets much of the criteria, including a capacity of more than 80,000 – its listed as 82,500 – among other factors.
The Rose Bowl, which hosted the 1994 final, a rather anticlimactic scoreless draw between eventual champion Brazil and Italy that was decided via penalty kicks, must be considered a strong candidate. But one must wonder if FIFA would love to hold the 2026 in a domed stadium such as AT&T Stadium, which has a capacity of 80,000 but is expandable to 100,000. But that’s just speculation (In 1994, FIFA made a then controversial decision of having the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. hold group stage matches. That decision was mocked by the international media, but grass was used in an indoor stadium for the first time).
“Hosting the final, the final is a special animal in terms of the requirements, simply because it’s just huge,” Smith said. “The media attention, the broadcast attention, the hospitality, obviously, the fans, the space and the requirement in and around the stadium final is just at a different level than the other matches. Just seating capacity alone, 80,000 is the minimum for a final. That’s obviously one of the key criteria for us when we look at that.
“The match schedule itself is far off. We haven’t looked at in detail at the moment.”
The workshop was supposed to be held in March, but things have been thrown off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mexico and Canada had held theirs before the pandemic hit.
FIFA wanted to finalize the selection process next spring, which was based on at least two sets of inspection visits in 2020.
“Obviously now we’ve had to delay that,” Smith said. “It’s very difficult to give a final date because we don’t know what the start date is. The start date of the workshop is tomorrow, but it’s not clear yet as to when we would be able to come and conduct those inspection visits. I would say we need a few more weeks yet to see how things develop and then I would say Q3 [third quarter], beginning of Q4 [fourth quarter] of this year we would have a better idea as to the inspection visits schedule and obviously the time needed for selection.”