Former Independence Health Group president and CEO Daniel J. Hilferty will succeed David L. Cohen as the chair of Philadelphia’s 2026 World Cup hosting bid when Cohen becomes the United States’ ambassador to Canada, the bid group announced Monday.

Exactly when Cohen will move north to Ottawa isn’t known yet, as there are still multiple stages left in his confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. He told The Inquirer “there is no set schedule” yet for his hearings, or those of other ambassadorial nominees.

But Cohen, who has chaired the bid since June 2019, knew the transition had to be settled well in advance. He started talking to Mayor Jim Kenney about the possibility of his leaving in the spring, when he knew that he was a candidate for an ambassadorship. Both men wanted Hilferty to take charge of the bid.

Hilferty, 64, is no stranger to working on Philadelphia’s big events. He was involved in the hosting of Pope Francis at the 2015 World Meeting of Families, the 2016 Democratic convention, and the 2017 NFL draft. He also chaired the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia from 2018-20.

Nor is he a stranger to the World Cup bid. Cohen asked Hilferty to be the bid’s vice-chair a few years ago, and Hilferty initially said yes. But he had to back out due to other commitments. Now he’s ready to go.

“I’m enthusiastically back on the team, and excited about doing something that means so much to this region, and to this emerging sport in our region,” Hilferty told The Inquirer.

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“He is universally respected in the business community, he is universally respected in the nonprofit community, he has credibility in City Hall and in Harrisburg,” Cohen said. “He was the CEO of one of the largest companies in Philadelphia, he has great management skills and abilities, and I think the bid and hosting responsibilities are not going to miss a beat with Dan succeeding me.”

Kenney said in a statement: “At every turn in his career, Dan has passionately stepped up to champion this city, ensuring Philadelphia takes its rightful place on the national and international stages. … He will be a terrific successor to David as chair, and I look forward to winning this bid together.”

A ‘traditionalist’ gets into soccer

A St. Joseph’s alum who grew up in Ocean City, N.J., Hilferty’s main sporting passion has long been basketball. But in recent years he has taken to soccer, thanks to the Union and the proliferation of games on TV from around the world.

Hilferty counts English power Liverpool as his favorite European club team, and it’s more than casual. Though he hasn’t been to the Reds’ fabled Anfield stadium yet, he traveled to London in 2016 to watch them play Manchester City in the League Cup final.

He also recalled going to Barcelona in 1990 for a business trip that coincided with the city’s famed club hosting Real Madrid. He didn’t know he was in town for El Clásico, one of world soccer’s grandest rivalries.

“It was like a Super Bowl on steroids,” he said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, this never occurred to me.’”

Now he gets it. And as he said, if he can get into the sport, then “people of my vintage” in the region can, too.

“In the early days of the Flyers, I didn’t know what a hockey stick looked like,” Hilferty said. “Well, they took the city and the region by storm. That’s what’s happening with soccer, and I think that passion will be a major selling point for our efforts to bring the World Cup here.

He later added: “Just as the city has changed and become more diverse, and there’s this emerging passion for soccer, those who are the ‘traditionalists’ are catching the spirit of it.”

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Sports and politics

Hilferty hasn’t yet gotten deep into the world of FIFA politics. But he’s no stranger to brass tacks and corridors of power, all the way up to the White House and Capitol Hill.

“I was fortunate to be in a position where I visited with four presidents as they contemplated health care reform with their teams,” he said. He called Congress “at the top of the heap from the perspective of complexity, various perspectives, politics involved.”

Last January, The Inquirer reported that Hilferty was considering a run for Pennsylvania governor next year as a Republican. Hilferty said in his interview for this story that while he has “always had an active interest in politics” — including a run for lieutenant governor in 1994 as a Democrat — he won’t be getting into this race.

“While people have often encouraged me to consider pursuing elected office … I have preferred to affect change as a business and civic leader,” he said. “I do not have plans to run for office and I am fully focused on helping to lead Philadelphia to the successful completion of this bid and into its hosting duties, if selected.”

Cohen, Hilferty, and other local officials will meet with FIFA dignitaries when the global governing body’s site inspection group comes to town on Sept. 22.

FIFA’s delegation will be led by vice president Victor Montagliani — who’s also president of CONCACAF — and chief tournaments and events officer Colin Smith. After months of videoconferences and phone calls, this will be a welcome chance for the dignitaries to finally meet in person.

“I actually feel like I’ve gotten to know a lot of these people … but it’s going to be so nice to see them in person, albeit masked,” Cohen said. “And it’s an opportunity to show off the city a little bit.”

Unfortunately, he had to emphasize “a little bit,” due to time constraints and the pandemic. There will be quick tours of potential practice venues, and proposed Fan Fest sites including Fairmount Park’s Belmont Plateau — which has overtaken Penn’s Landing as the top choice. But most of the time will be spent at Lincoln Financial Field.

There won’t be visits to the city’s monuments, or a tour of the famed food scene. Lunch at the Linc will be the only meal.

“I’d love to do a ‘Taste of Philadelphia’ reception and dinner, but we don’t have a dinner,” Cohen said.

Such is life. But if all goes well, Cohen will have opportunities in the future to take Montagliani to Tony Luke’s, Reading Terminal Market, or Zahav.

And by the way, Montagliani is Canadian. If the longtime Vancouver resident needs to call the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, he’ll find a familiar voice on the line.

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