Denver made its pitch to become a global soccer destination Monday as FIFA officials toured the city, which is bidding to host games in the 2026 World Cup tournament.
In all, 16 cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico will host games during the men’s tournament in soccer’s most prestigious competition. Tournament officials are working to whittle down the pool of candidates this month. Of the 17 U.S. contenders, only 10 will make the final list. Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High is among the candidates.
Tim Howard, the former US national team and Colorado Rapids goalie was the headliner at a news conference at the stadium. Howard played in three World Cups, in 2006, 2010 and 2014 and said Denver compares well.
“We are poised and ready to make this the best World Cup and the best host city there has been,” said Howard, who ended his long career with a stint playing for the Rapids.
He talked about how, as a kid growing up in New Jersey, he’d dreamed of playing in the world’s most prestigious soccer tournament. “I'm supporting this host bid because I've seen what the power of a World Cup can do. I've seen the way that it can galvanize communities. It can bring hope to kids.”
There are reasons for soccer fans in Colorado to be optimistic. Earlier this year, three CONCACAF Nations League games were moved to Empower Field from Texas due to coronavirus complications. All of the matches sold out, including those which didn’t feature the U.S. Men’s National Team. That has left fans hopeful FIFA will notice the sport’s local popularity.
Denver is one of the strongest soccer viewing markets in the country, ranking sixth in overall viewership for the most recent World Cup, according to the bid committee.
Victor Montagliani, FIFA Vice-President and CONCACAF President, and Colin Smith, FIFA Chief Tournaments and Events Officer, were among the officials who visited Denver Monday. They spoke at the press conference, along with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and others.
“It’s obvious Denver wants it, obviously Colorado wants it,” Montagliani said. “That to me is one of the most important things.”
Smith said the FIFA bid city team will be examining things like the technical requirements of the field and stadium, transportation, accommodations, the airport and sustainability. “One thing that was pointed out to us today was obviously the compact footprint of Denver,” he said, noting fans would be able to visit a fan fest locations, hotels, restaurants and walk to the stadium.
But he conceded picking the final 10 cities will be a challenge.
“We’ve got a tough job to do,” he said, applauding Denver’s engagement and “keen” desire to host games.
Unlike bidding for an Olympic games, which require multiple venues needed to host multiple sports, hosting World Cup games is a more straightforward affair. It’s one stadium, one sport, in multiple locations.
FIFA plans to finalize its host cities later this year. Kansas City, Dallas and Houston are other cities in the region vying for a spot. If chosen, it would be Denver’s first time as a World Cup site. The U.S. has hosted the tournament three times: once for the men’s in 1994, and twice for the women’s in 1999 and 2003.
Backers of Denver's push say the city is well positioned to host matches thanks to its central location, experience with big events, and good weather. They say the $45 million dollars it'll take to host would come from corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, and private investments as well as funding from FIFA and the federal government, for public safety.
“It'll end up being a privately funded model for us,” said Matthew Payne of the Denver Sports Commission.
Payne said he expects Denver could host five to six games, likely in the early rounds.
Denver’s bid committee thinks it may have two key advantages. One is that it’s located in the middle of the country, with other likely host cities like New York and Los Angeles on the coasts. The other is the city’s famous 5280 feet altitude, a possibly important factor since high-altitude spots like Mexico City will also host games.
“We feel really confident about what Denver has to offer from a time zone perspective. We're the only city in the mountain time zone,” said Manny Rodriguez, co-Chair of Denver’s bid committee. “We think our altitude actually is a huge advantage for us,” because two of three host cities in Mexico, including Mexico City will also host teams for games and training at high altitude.
“We think it's important that the United States also have a city at altitude,” Rodriguez said.
FIFA expects to have a decision next year.
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