Commentary

World Cup 2026: Enormous work still lies ahead

The thing that stands out about the selection of stadiums in the 11 U.S. cities FIFA named to host games at the 2026 World Cup is simply their sheer size.

The smallest stadium is Miami's Hard Rock Stadium. With a capacity of 65,326, it is bigger than all but one stadium used at the World Cup in Russia four years ago and all but one stadium built for Qatar 2022.

All are NFL stadiums.

The newest is SoFi Stadium, opened in 2020 and built at a cost of more than $5 billion (!) and privately funded by Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke, also the owner of Arsenal and the Colorado Rapids.

Hard Rock Stadium cost just $115 million when it opened in 1987. It was built by Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, who had a background in soccer, previously operating teams in South Florida (Fort Lauderdale Strikers) and Minnesota (Strikers). Robbie built Hard Rock Stadium with soccer in mind, making sure the field was wide enough to accommodate international matches. The irony is that Joe Robbie Stadium missed out on the 1994 World Cup because the baseball Marlins played at the stadium and couldn't be away long enough to meet FIFA's needs to get the stadium ready.

FIFA's requirements to take control of the 2026 World Cup venues are going to be one of the major issues stadium operators will face. In five cases, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Boston's Gillette Stadium (Foxboro) and Seattle's Lumen Field and Toronto's BMO Field and Vancouver's B.C. Place in Canada, MLS teams play in the stadiums and likely won't be able to use them for weeks.

FIFA just won't want to clean the stadiums of existing sponsorship signage or ready media, medical, security and operations areas, but expand the width of the playing surfaces to allow for room for signboards, team benches, match officials and photographers.

Yes, most NFL stadiums are now built with soccer in mind. And all but SoFi Stadium have hosted big international events, whether that is the Gold Cup, Copa Centenario in 2016 or World Cup qualifying. But extending the width at many of the stadiums will still be necessary to meet FIFA's World Cup requirements.

In some cases, it will be a matter of cutting out corners. In others, the field will have to raised above the lowest level of seating. The stadium with the biggest problem? SoFi Stadium, whose playing surface will need to be widened 63 feet, according to one report.

Capacity at some stadiums will be reduced. Others have room to add more seats elsewhere. There will be a cost borne by the stadium operators, but FIFA, which controls the ticket revenues, won't worry. In 2018, the United 2026 bid projected $14 billion in revenues from the event,

"It doesn't have material impact on capacity," Colin Smith, FIFA’s chief tournaments and events officer, said at a media event on Thursday in New York. "The capacity of the stadiums, the number of fans who are going be able to experience this World Cup will probably double in the stadiums than what we've had for previous World Cups. I think World Cup '94 holds the current record for attendance [3.6 million for only 48 games, an average of 69,174 fans per game], and that's going to be blown out of the water, given the capacities that we have in these stadiums."

Another issue is grass. In 1994, all but Detroit's Silverdome and the old Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands had grass fields. Of the USA's 11 World Cup 2026 stadiums, just four stadiums have grass. Of the other seven, four have the complicating factor of having some kind of roof.

The technology for laying or relaying grass turf has advanced considerably since 1994. A new surface had to be laid down for the recent Real Madrid-Liverpool final at the Stade de France after the UEFA Champions League final was moved from St. Petersburg following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Grass was grown in Spain, near Barcelona, transported to St. Denis and installed in 48 hours ahead of the final.

In 2026, it won't be a matter of slapping grass over the turf for a couple of weeks like has been done for events in the past.

“It’s not just grass," Smith said when he visited Atlanta in 2021. "It’s the highest quality. A little bit more detail on that is the consistency of playing surface. You have many different cities and many different climate conditions. We will also have different types of grass in order to cope with those conditions, but the consistency of play on those pitches will be guaranteed. That’s what we look for.”



Grass was ruled out in 2013 when Mercedes-Benz Stadium was in the planning stage. Smith sounded confident when he was in Atlanta, one of the four host venues whose stadium has a retractable roof, that maintaining high-quality grass surfaces won't be a problem in 2026.

“There is lots of technology that exists these days,” he said. “We just need to get it right. And we have experts on our side, and we are working with multiple third-party companies and consultants as well."

The availability of the four indoor stadiums in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles will be essential to scheduling games in mid-afternoon, given the extreme weather conditions (temperatures into three digits and heavy storms) that are becoming more frequent across the United States.

Gianni Infantino, for one, did not seem worried when he was asked about setting the schedule and kickoff times and weather's impact.

"There are many factors that we have to take into account," he said in New York on Thursday. "But we are, how should I say, pretty relaxed that with the choice that was made of these 16 cities, we have really the best ones and we would put up a fantastic World Cup today."

"Pretty relaxed"? That's easy to say if you are the FIFA boss.

3 comments about "World Cup 2026: Enormous work still lies ahead".
  1. Santiago 1314, June 18, 2022 at 7:10 a.m.

    How does Kroenke build a Stadium for 5 Billion and Not make it Big enough for SOCCER.???... Got to add 63 feet... Something is Weird about this.???

  2. Greedy Striker, June 18, 2022 at 4:57 p.m.

    He doesn't care about soccer. Just ask Arsenal fans!

  3. Ric Fonseca, June 20, 2022 at 11:55 p.m.

    Interesting article.  And even more curioser and curioser, is the historical fact that this was almost the very same commentary when the '94 WC was awarded to USA, and yet, look at what happened during the course of the tournament:  nothing but success all around, and a rip-roaring WC USA 1994 Final at the Rose Bowl.  As for SoFi Stadium, heck there is plenty of time yet, so all I say, is to chill and let us begin the countdown!
    H. Ric Fonseca
    WC USA 1994 - "Historian"

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