Philadelphia’s long wait to become a men’s World Cup host city for the first time ever is likely to be made even longer by the coronavirus.
Concacaf president Victor Montagliani, who’s also vice-chair of North America’s 2026 men’s World Cup organizing committee, said Monday that the pandemic’s outbreak has scuttled the original timeline for picking the tournament’s host venues.
The plan had been to announce the 16 overall winners — 10 from the U.S., three each from Canada and Mexico — in the first quarter of 2021. And there were to be some major behind-the-scenes events this spring,
A mid-March meeting in Dallas of representatives from the 17 competing U.S. cities was scrapped, and has not yet been rescheduled. Philadelphia’s delegation was to include representatives from City Hall, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Eagles, Comcast and Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer. (Comcast’s Telemundo holds Spanish-language U.S. TV rights for the tournament.)
Similar meetings for Canadian and Mexican cities in their respective countries did take place just before the global shutdown began.
The first round of site inspection trips — stadiums, potential practice sites, hotels and so on — was to take place in March and April. That has been scrapped too, with no new date chosen. What had been scheduled as the second round of visits, set for October and November, could now be the first.
“The deadline, I think, will likely be pushed back, because I think the cities are going to probably ask for it,” Montagliani said. “A lot of cities have other things on their hands that they have to deal with right now. So I think for now, until we get out of this, in all likelihood it won’t be towards the end of the year when that file is kind of picked up again.”
In a pandemic-stricken world, fans understandably might call the trips frivolous. But when the time comes, they will have merit. While the various officials involved may know the stadiums from the games they’ve hosted, seeing local infrastructure in person matters.
That’s especially true when it comes to transportation logistics for getting teams to training sites. Site inspectors will want to know firsthand how long it takes to drive from Center City to Penn’s Rhodes Field, the NovaCare Complex and Subaru Park, which were pitched as potential practice venues here.
Officials will also will want to visit cities’ potential fan fest sites. Philadelphia pitched Penn’s Landing as its top candidate.
In addition to the 2026 World Cup, Montagliani discussed a range of other subjects on his plate these days. There are no firm dates as of now for when much of anything on this continent’s soccer landscape will resume, and Montagliani made it clear that he isn’t setting any.
“The most important thing is the health of our citizens, and we need to help in any way we can,” he said. “We need to be realistic in terms of when football will come back — and it can only come back when the health authorities say that we’re in a position to have it come back."
Here are some highlights of Montagliani’s remarks on three important men’s events coming up:
Concacaf already announced the postponement of its Nations League final four, which had been set for Houston on June 4 and Arlington, Texas, on June 7. There are no new dates yet, and Montagliani said there might not be for a while.
A big factor is the restrictions on international travel that countries including the United States have in place.
“I don't run a country, but I think the last thing that will be lifted is international borders, right?” Montagliani said. “International football is based on international travel.”
He said Concacaf is “committed” to the venues, but if the games need to be moved, they will be — and the NFL schedule could be a factor. The Texans’ NRG Stadium is to host the Mexico-Costa Rica semifinal, and the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium is to host the third place game and final. (The Houston Dynamo’s smaller BBVA Stadium is to host the U.S.-Honduras semi.)
But Montagliani does want to get the games played.
“I think it would be irresponsible to not finish that off,” he said. “When and how we're going to finish that off, you know, obviously remains to be seen, but yeah, we're 100% committed to that.”
The campaign was to start this September, with the confederation’s top six teams playing a round-robin — the traditional “hexagonal” format — and the other 29 teams drawn in groups that feed a knockout tournament. The fourth-place team out of the top six faces the winner of the knockout tournament, for a place in an inter-continental playoff that will take place in March 2022.
There’s enough room in the calendar to fit everything in, but not by too much. Concacaf also has a Gold Cup tournament in the summer of 2021, and qualifying games for it before then.
“We may have to look at reformatting how this looks — whether it’s a hex, whether it’s some other shape that is part of a kid’s block set, I don’t know,” Montagliani said. “We just don’t know what this thing will look like until we know what the calendar is going to look like, and how this calendar fits in our entire ecosystem. It’s not just about World Cup qualifying, it’s about all the other things as well.”
Concacaf suspended the tournament, which was to be played this March and April, before the Olympics as a whole were pushed to 2021. Montagliani said the event will be played sometime next year, and Mexico will remain the host country.
“I’m going to say likely the same time of the year, but who knows, that might change too,” he said.