By Ridge Mahoney
After three decades in the doldrums, Canadian soccer is getting a big boost. And it’s been a
long time coming.
At a press conference in New York City on Monday, the presidents of U.S. Soccer, the Mexican soccer federation (FMF) and Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) confirmed a
tri-nation bid for the 2026 World Cup will be prepared and submitted to FIFA.
U.S. news outlets jumped on the announcement, which confirmed remarks made last week by CSA president
Victor Montagliani that such a process was in the works. As initially proposed, the lion’s share of games -- 60 of the 80 -- would be played in the United States, including all knockout
games starting with the quarterfinals. Those figures and specifics are not set in stone and along with the cites wanting to host games FIFA will have some input as well.
decisions on those things are up to FIFA. It's their tournament. But that will be our proposal and that is our agreement together,” said U.S. soccer president Sunil Gulati at the press
Reaction in Mexico, predictably, teemed with fury and outrage that the two-time World Cup host nation (1970, 1986) would stage only 10 of the 80 games. Lobbying has already
begun for the opening game to be played at the Azteca Stadium, site of the 1970 and 1986 finals (each of which produced five goals).
As for Canada, well, just playing in the World Cup --
assuming the format of host nations qualifying automatically is retained -- is impossible to undervalue. Not since 1986 has Canada appeared in a World Cup, and even though it exited that tournament
without garnering a point or scoring a goal, it brought the game unprecedented exposure and coverage north of the border, where hockey and the NHL dominate the pro sports landscape.
interview several years ago, Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, a defender in his playing days who earned three of his 47 caps at the 1986 competition, talked about what it meant to play in
that World Cup.
“People were excited and of course we were, too,” he said. “Everybody wanted to talk about soccer. We were in the newspapers and on TV every day leading
up to the tournament.
“Even though we didn’t do well it gave the sport publicity and attention we could only have dreamed about before. But then the next year we lost to the
U.S. and I think that’s when it all changed. The U.S. qualified for the  Olympics and then went to the  World Cup and the game started to take off and look where it is now.
“For us it went the other way, fast, and we’re still trying to recover.”
In May 1987, Canada and the USA played in a preliminary round to decide which team would
advance in the Olympic qualifying competition. Canada won its home leg, 2-0, but a week later the Americans rolled to a stunning 3-0 win at the St. Louis Soccer Park in Fenton, Mo., and eventually
made it to South Korea for the Olympics.
In the ensuing three decades, the Canadian men’s game has clawed back some of its traction but only once -- in 1997 -- has it reached the
Hexagonal. It lost a playoff for the 1994 World Cup in agonizing fashion, falling to Australia on penalty kicks, 4-1, after two legs ended up, 3-3.
After a decade of Canadian cities being
passed over by MLS, the league admitted Toronto FC in 2007 and has since taken on Vancouver and Montreal, which earned great praise for reaching the Concacaf Champions League finals two years ago.
Despite objections from players regarding artificial turf, the 2015 Women’s World Cup drew big crowds and helped sow some of the seeds for a 2026 bid. A proposed Canadian Premier
League is gaining some momentum, though tentative plans to start up in 2018 seem far-fetched given the time frame and the lack of confirmed cities or ownership groups.
On a radio show
last month Montagliani said, “The interest has been quite surprising. I knew there would definitely be six to eight ownership groups that would be interested but I’ve been surprised that
the number has been higher than that.
“I think we’re comfortable with that number [six to eight] and away you go [for a quicker launch]. You’ve gotta get the ball
rolling and once it gets rolling it’s just going to build and grow from there.”
The CPL is projected to be a Division I league, as is MLS in the United States, and some
lobbying with FIFA would be needed to obtain sanction, as is the case with Welsh teams Cardiff City, Newport County, Swansea City and Wrexham that compete in English leagues.
Premier League consists of 12 teams.)
Ten World Cup games, regarded as insult in Mexico, would spark intense competition in Canada, though if FIFA insisted on a minimum stadium capacity
of 40,000, as it does now, few facilities would be in the running, and all of those that are large enough have artificial turf.
FIFA has yet to approve the use of an artificial turf field
for World Cup matches; experiments are underway in Qatar to find or develop a strain of grass that can stand up to the heat of November and December, the months to be used for the 2022 competition.
The width of a FIFA-approved playing surface would be an issue in a few stadiums as well.
Capacity at BMO Field in Toronto was expanded last fall to approximately 36,000 for the Grey Cup
final and MLS Cup final. FIFA might opt for larger stadiums such as the nearby Rogers Centre and the Olympic Stadium in Montreal and maybe by then a method has been created by which grass can be
installed temporarily without serious concerns about footing and drainage.
The U.S. is the only nation in the world that could realistically host a 48-team World Cup all by itself, but by
bringing in Mexico and Canada it opens up the potential of multi-nation bid for future competitions. (It also gives Concacaf, riddled by scandal the past two years, a larger platform to polish up its
Next up in the World Cup cycle would be South America, and if Uruguay truly wants to host the 2030 event as it did the first World Cup 100 years earlier, it will have to take
on a partner. Or two. Only if the 48-team format is a complete flop -- which is certainly possible, given the convenience of arranged results -- would FIFA consider cutting back the number of teams,
and reducing the participants from each confederation as well as gross revenues would be political and financial catastrophes.
Thirteen cities will host games in the 2020 European
Championship, which has already been co-hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands (2000), Austria and Switzerland (2008) and Poland and Ukraine (2012). We may be moving toward a time where a
confederation, not a single country, hosts the biggest soccer competitions.
Predictably, falling short of the Hexagonal last fall triggered consternation and outrage amongst Canadian
soccer fans, many of whom blamed MLS for its insistence not classifying Canadians as domestic players, but the plain fact is that other Concacaf countries -- Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica,
Trinidad & Tobago -- have used MLS to upgrade their player pool and development programs. Individually as well as collectively, Canadian players have not kept pace.
count against the limit of eight internationals per non-Canadian team unless they signed their first pro contracts with MLS teams as Homegrown players and meet other criteria. They automatically count
as domestics if they play for Vancouver, Toronto FC, or Montreal.
The World Cup bid announcement comes at a crucial time for the game in Canada. It has three flourishing MLS teams,
prospects -- however tentative -- of its own league in the near future -- several entries in the NASL and USL, younger players coming through the pipeline who need opportunities on the field, and a
women’s team anxious to atone for losing to England, 2-1, in the 2015 quarterfinals.
Hosting World Cup games is opportunity personified for the game north of the border. It cannot