BY MARK GODFREY

This article originally appeared in The Football Pink Issue 4 – The World Cup Edition

As Brazil 2014 draws to its close, MARK GODFREY analyses the merits of FIFA furthering its policy of legacy building by awarding the 2026 World Cup finals to another football outpost – Canada.

Since the World Cup finals of 1990 held in Italy – the last to occur before the break-up of Communist eastern Europe and the competition’s expansion to a 32 team qualification format – the planet’s most-watched sporting tournament has shied away from perpetually pitching it’s tent inside the game’s traditional powerhouse nations.
In the five World Cups since Italia ’90, only France ’98 and Germany ’06 have represented the obvious safe pair of hosting hands of the big, established European countries.

FIFA, and in particular the organisation’s controversial President, Sepp Blatter, have been especially keen to enhance the game’s appeal across the world by awarding the finals to emerging sporting and economic markets in an attempt to cement their legacy of making football, and specifically the World Cup, a truly global phenomenon.

The USA hosted in 1994 as part of their soccer rebirthing strategy of the Major League Soccer (MLS) brand which followed two years later and has steadily blossomed ever since. Japan and South Korea’s joint-bid provided the vehicle through which the colossal Asian market was tapped in 2002. The 2010 renewal in South Africa was meant be seen as a tangible recognition of the growing importance of football on the troubled continent – but also served as Blatter’s first great personal foray into self-promotion through philanthropy.

The upcoming World Cup in Brazil might consider itself to fulfil several pre-requisites of FIFA’s widely accepted set of indications for the hosting of the game’s greatest spectacle. The Brazilian economy has exploded in recent years having overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth largest. The tournament hasn’t been played on South or Central American soil since Mexico in 1986 and while Britain can consider itself to be the ancestral home of football, Brazil can justifiably claim to be the spiritual home of ‘The Beautiful Game’.

What of the ‘legacy’ so generously gifted to Brazil with the awarding of the tournament? That, which has played out amongst accusations of corruption and scenes of riot shields, baton charges and passionate protests, has yet to be embraced by the poorer and less entitled in Brazilian society who have felt very few of the benefits from the massive investment in stadia around the country. All the while, funding for essential public services has seemingly been squeezed to the point that civil unrest before and during the competition seems inevitable.

Where FIFA’s vision of legacy lies in its choices for the subsequent two World Cup finals is perhaps a little less clear given the allegedly dastardly and murky nature of the decision making process that awarded the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively. It would be naïve of anyone to believe that these two countries were chosen for anything other than their oil-invigorated wealth and the opulence with which they courted those with influence and power from inside FIFA. What legacy for the people of those countries, other than the further inflation of President Vladimir Putin’s voracious machismo or the Qataris’ desire to position themselves alongside Dubai at the forefront of the breakneck race to commercialisation of the Gulf states?

So, with those clouds casting considerable and dubious shadows over the next three World Cup tournaments, what of 2026? Will there be a viable candidate bid that fulfils the brief of securing an economic and, more importantly, a footballing legacy the likes of which we’ve not truly seen since the Americans hosted in 1994? The answer could lie with their neighbours to the north.

In January 2014, the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) raised many an eyebrow by announcing its intention to bid for the World Cup of 2026. It was a bold move considering Canada’s lack of any international football pedigree, having qualified just once for the World Cup finals (Mexico ’86) in the association’s 102 year history. And while the reputation of the Women’s National Team continues to grow having won a bronze medal at the London Olympics of 2012 and reached a comfortable spot in the top 10 of FIFA’s rankings, the Men’s side languishes in 112th place in their equivalent standings, remaining without a win in 14 attempts since October 2012’s victory over Cuba.

Unlike the USA, who used the 1994 World Cup as the springboard to propel development of the game to the level they have achieved today both domestically and internationally, the Canadians’ ambitious scheme is seen as the ultimate target in their efforts to improve the standard and profile of football in Canada beyond its current shambolic state.

The CSA won’t be put off the bidding process based on purely footballing reasons; after all, South Africa were ranked 83rd on the FIFA list at the time of the 2010 finals and the 2022 hosts, Qatar, are currently ranked 101st, only 11 places higher than Canada.

What does Canada have to offer if they decide to proceed with their bid?

As a member of the G8 group of the world’s leading economic democracies (Canada lies 11th on the list of the world’s highest GDP’s, just behind India), investment in the country’s already reliable and fit-for-purpose infrastructure could be readily accessed.

Facilities for visiting teams and supporters in major cities that are likely to play host to several games such as Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton are presently at a standard expected of a developed nation while even the existing road, rail and air transport links across the second largest country in the world by area would likely meet the strictest criteria laid down by FIFA.

While there are only seven soccer-suitable stadia in Canada with a capacity larger than 30,000 – including the recently refurbished BC Place, home of MLS club Vancouver Whitecaps – most would be prime candidates for major redevelopment. As multi-purpose sports venues with varied interested parties, these could certainly attract the necessary financial investment for such plans and therefore satisfy this part of FIFA’s legacy program. The newly-built stadia belonging to recent MLS expansion clubs Toronto FC and Montreal Impact have capacities of just over 20,000 but have the potential to be extended as both franchises expect to grow in popularity over the next decade.
What must also be remembered is that Canada has plenty of experience of successfully hosting major sporting events – from the 1976 summer and 2010 winter Olympic Games, to several of FIFA’s own tournaments over the last 25 years. Indeed, this summer sees the Women’s Under-20 World Cup take place in Canada, as will the Women’s World Cup finals in 2015.

But what about the appetite of the Canadian public for a World Cup bid and for football in general? The big problem for players and supporters – as was the case in the US in the days before MLS and World Cup ’94 – is the development and interest in the sport beyond the age of adolescence given the appeal of other more traditional favourites like ice hockey, Canadian/American football and baseball.

Across the 10 provinces, the strategic plans of the regional associations were haphazard and uncoordinated, leaving the CSA no alternative but to implement a recent radical restructuring of Canada’s future football blueprint for the improvement of players and coaches. The creation of a national database of the country’s estimated one million participants should make it easier to identify and nurture talent across such a vast territory. The overall aim, should Canada’s dream of hosting the World Cup in 2026 fail to materialise, is to gradually grow a generation of players capable of qualification via the regular CONCACAF route. In terms of legacy, the overhauling of Canada’s amateurish approach to soccer as part of any attempt to host the World Cup must go a long way to ticking plenty of boxes for FIFA.

The decision on who will be awarded the 2026 World Cup will come around 2018 so Canadian taxpayers, business and government have four years to align themselves behind the CSA’s intention to bid for the event. Support, for what is overwhelmingly seen as a minority past time, from big business and the man on the street could well be the deciding factor on whether the project ever gets off the ground. If the major corporations can’t be enticed to back the bid and fund the construction of stadia and facilities, it’s highly unlikely that a government, mindful of its voters’ apathy towards the game, will agree to foot the bill.

In reality, Canada’s chance of success is slim, but if they are to succeed, they should take inspiration from their neighbours south of the border. A determined association galvanised a nation and its efforts produced the surprise awarding of the 1994 World Cup finals. The resulting development and raised profile have boosted football both at home and abroad for the USA. Even if the World Cup of 2026 doesn’t grace Canadian soil, don’t be surprised to see their national team there, bearing the fruit of today’s lofty ambitions.

MARK GODFREY – @TheFootballPink

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