Philly: ‘Dark horse’ or shoo-in for World Cup 2026?

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Soccer fans in Philadelphia have had a lot to celebrate this week.

This year’s Word Cup is underway in Russia. FIFA, the sport’s governing body, also announced that North America beat out Morocco to host the monthlong tournament in 2026, giving Philadelphia a shot at being one of the host cities. Matches would be played at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles.

“I’d definitely be one of the first to go to the stadium to watch games if it does come here,” said Godford Mensah, a doctor who works in Old City, while taking a break Thursday from a weekly lunchtime pickup game at Penn Park in West Philadelphia.

“You just want to be around people who enjoy the game, have a passion for the game, who just want to be part of something bigger,” he said.

Mensah’s teammate, Henock Ayehu, thinks Philadelphia is a good candidate to play host – at least as good as any other U.S. city.

“There’s a strong fan base here,” he said. “I think — in terms of transportation, convenience in getting to the games — I think all those infrastructure pieces are in place.”

FIFA is expected to choose 16 host cities for 2026. A handful of them will be in Canada or Mexico. The rest will be in the U.S.

A report, released before FIFA chose North America’s bid, provides some sense of how Philadelphia stacks up against the competition.

Philadelphia’s transportation to Lincoln Financial Field is described as “fair to good.”

The city’s inventory of hotel rooms “would appear to meet FIFA’s minimum requirements,” but options for “top-tier” accommodations are limited, according to the report.

Philadelphia’s bid committee – the people pushing for the city to get a spot – is banking on the city’s history of hosting big international soccer matches, including group matches during the women’s World Cup in 2003. The tournament moved to the U.S. because China was grappling with a SARS outbreak.

Boosters also point to the city’s track record of holding major events with huge crowds — without incident.

Most recently, Philadelphia hosted the NFL draft. The city has also held the Democratic National Convention and welcomed Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families.

“We know how to do big events around here and do them well,” said Larry Needle, executive director of PHL Sports, a division of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, a member of the bid committee.

It also doesn’t hurt that the World Cup in 2026 will coincide with the 250th anniversary of American Independence. Philadelphia is slated to play a major role in that celebration.

And yet, the city could just as easily be snubbed, said sports economist Victor Matheson, but only because of something it can’t control: geography.

While Philadelphia checks a lot of boxes, Matheson calls it a “dark horse” to host World Cup matches in 2026 because it’s so close to New York, widely considered a shoo-in, possibly for the final match of the tournament.

“They’ll probably not try to cluster stadiums together. They’d rather spread them out,” he said. “This gives you the advantage of being able to attract local audiences from kind of a wider geographical distance.”

FIFA will announce the final list of cities sometime in 2020. If Philadelphia is picked, it could host a quarterfinal match.

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