World Cup 2026: Philly’s ‘passion’ and natural turf earn points from FIFA

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney posed with delegates from FIFA and United States Soccer at Lincoln Financial Field on September 22, 2021. Philadelphia is a candidate city to host the 2026 World Cup. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney posed with delegates from FIFA and United States Soccer at Lincoln Financial Field on September 22, 2021. Philadelphia is a candidate city to host the 2026 World Cup. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The City of Philadelphia is putting out the welcome mat to an international soccer group that could bring what they call the biggest sporting event in the world to the city in 2026.

FIFA, the organization that runs the World Cup, toured Philadelphia on Wednesday to see just how qualified the city is to host the global soccer competition in 2026.

Colin Smith, FIFA’s chief of tournament and events, found at least one good sign: The turf at Lincoln Financial Field would make a fine soccer pitch. That’s because the surface is natural grass and has a special system so that it grows all year instead of the artificial turf that is used at other stadiums and has been linked with safety concerns for players.

FIFA Vice-President Victor Montagliani, meanwhile, focused on something that’s harder to replicate: the people.

“I’m very pleased overall at the passion that is being brought by everyone, it was definitely evidenced here in Philadelphia,” Montagliani said.

Victor Montagliani, president of CONCACAF, and a member of the FIFA council, toured proposed venues including Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia as part of the city’s bid to host the World Cup in 2026 on September 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At the beginning of FIFA’s tour of the Eagles stadium, city officials gathered near one of the end zones to speak about the endeavor, which could bring international tourists and media exposure on a level never seen before in the city.

Mayor Jim Kenney said Philly is ready, citing the city’s track record hosting the Papal visit in 2015, the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and the NFL Draft in 2017. Then, of course, there was the party of all parties in 2018 when the Eagles won the Super Bowl and Jason Kelce showed the world what a real victory costume looks like.

“Perhaps no other city has a better track record of hosting major events over the past few years,” Kenney said.

Dan Hilferty, who heads the Philadelphia Soccer 2026 group established to bring the big event to town, said the site tour was designed to highlight the city’s international and inclusive character.

“The beautiful game [of soccer] absolutely aligns with the qualities of this beautiful city, we are a city always in motion, we thrive on creativity and agility, and we have become a better city because of it,” he said.

Not everyone agrees that hosting the World Cup would be so beautiful though. A group of South Philadelphia residents protested Wednesday’s FIFA visit because they fear a winning bid could mean an end for FDR Park’s wild meadow, which was floated as a site for training fields. The proposed facility would include new fields, restrooms, a press box, concession stands, storage areas, and more. The project could cost upwards of $200 million. The plan is still a concept at this point and there was no mention of it at the public part of the site visit.

South Philadelphians rallied against the potential use of the Meadowlands in FDR Park as a site of the 2026 World Cup on September 22, 2021. Philadelphia is a candidate city to host the 2026 World Cup. (courtesy of PennEnvironment)

Philadelphia will compete with 16 other U.S. cities for 10 or 11 spots in the competition road map. New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and venues in Florida and Texas are considered front-runners for the slots, according to The Washington Post.  Other contenders include Baltimore, Denver, Cincinnati, the Bay Area, and Seattle.

Officials say they were impressed by the greeting they received in Philadelphia, but there are many more things that will be evaluated before a final decision sometime early next year.

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