Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Canada wants to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, but will it work?

As the nation gears up to host the 2015 Women's World Cup, Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani is setting his eyes on an even bigger prize.

Canada wants to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, but will it work?

I read with some interest Thursday morning the news that Canada intends to bid to host the 2026 World Cup.

As the nation gears up to host the 2015 Women's World Cup, Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani is setting his eyes on an even bigger prize.

2026 is the next tournament available for bidding on, with 2018 set for Russia and 2022 set for Qatar.

There's no doubt that Canada would be a great host nation. It has beautiful, modern cities, lots of transportation infrastructure, and a diverse population that would flock to venues in droves.

But the CSA's bid potential has one huge weak spot: stadiums, Right now, Canada only has four venues with capacities above 40,000. They are Montréal's Olympic Stadium (66,308), Toronto's Rogers Centre (53,506), Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium (56,302) and BC Place (54,320).

All four stadiums have artificial surfaces, and while that may pass muster for the women, it surely won't for the men who run FIFA headquarters.

(It's not right for the women either, but that's a debate for another day.)

BC Place wouldn't need much work, because it was renovated after the 2010 Olympics. It's set to host the 2015 Women's World Cup championship game, and for good reason. Commonwealth Stadium also was upgraded in 2010.

The other big venues, though, would need some help.

Rogers Centre opened in 1989, and while there's a plan in place to install a real grass surface, it would need further upgrades to be the signature venue that the tournament would demand.

Olympic Stadium opened in 1976 when Montréal hosted the Summer Games, and it's already deteriorating. A World Cup would provide a chance to build a new venue, but the historic nature of the site would make for a tricky process.

So those are the big four, both in terms of venues and cities. Since an average World Cup requires eight to 12 stadiums, at least four more would have to be built, or existing stadiums would have to be expanded. And for a country of Canada's stature, you would think they'd want to go above the minimum.

Prime candidates for expansion include the Canadian football stadiums in Ottawa (24,000), Winnipeg (33,500), Calgary (35,560) and Regina, Saskatchewan (33,427). Hamilton, Ontario is currently finishing up a 24,000 seat venue that will host events at the 2015 Pan Am Games.

(Check out photos of some of the potential venues here.)

If you take the four big venues and expand the five medium ones, you get to nine venues, with a majority holding between 40,000 and 50,000 fans. That's not too unusual for World Cups, believe it or not. Brazil will have five such stadiums, with two more below 60,000 capacity. South Africa and Germany had multiple venues in the same range too.

But there's a country not far from Canada that has six stadiums with capacities above 100,000, five in the 90,000's, and... well, you know where I'm going with this.

The biggest threat by far to Canada's World Cup bid is the possibility that the United States might also put its hat in the ring.

Even though the U.S.' 2022 bid was beaten by Qatar, there are increasing rumors that the U.S. Soccer Federation might try again. That would likely prove more appealing to CONCACAF, given the potential for much higher revenues.

For example, all 18 stadiums in the U.S.' final 2022 World Cup bid package had capacities above 65,000. Only one Canadian stadium would presently reach that standard.

(You might recall that Lincoln Financial Field was one of those venues. I still have documents from the U.S. bid in a desk drawer at my office, in case of emergency.)

Having said that, you could argue that a Canadian bid would have benefits in the eyes of FIFA that an American bid would not. FIFA president Sepp Blatter likes taking the World Cup to places where he can, as he might say, "help grow the game."

From a socioeconomic development sweet-talking jargon perspective, Blatter could claim the United States doesn't "need" a World Cup in the way that Canada would, or that Brazil, South Africa and Qatar do. And he'd be right. But at a certain point, I can't help thinking that the money an American bid can put on the table would put Canada's bid in the shade.

(And as we know too well, everything with FIFA comes back to money. Someone has to pay for the shrimp cocktails and scantily-clad dancers at their big events. Never mind where the money comes from, or whether there's democracy involved.)

What about a joint U.S.-Canada bid? It might make sense. CONCACAF would more than likely not want to nominate two of its member countries in the same bidding process, given the risk of splitting votes when the ballots are cast.

But Montagliani said at the announcement that he isn't interested.

If the CSA follows through with a formal bid - and certainly if the bid proves successful - it would be a huge boost for the sport in Canada. Soccer's popularity has skyrocketed across the country in recent years, fueled by three Major League Soccer teams and the global exposure of top European leagues.

But for as much as the sport has grown, the men's national team hasn't followed suit. Although the women have been very successful, the men have not played in a men's World Cup since 1986. They have not even reached the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying since 1997, in the run-up to the 1998 tournament.

Hosting the World Cup would give solve the qualification problem, since Canada would get an automatic berth. But there's a very long way to go until then. And it's a safe bet that for all the buzz the news has generated, there might be some interested parties south of the 49th parallel too.

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