We Need Bang for Those World Cup Bucks

If Edmonton does gets 2026 World Cup matches, what will be the legacy pieces?
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Photo by Mexsport/Canada Soccer
The Canadian men's. national team during the national anthems ahead of a November, 2021 World Cup qualifier against Mexico.

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In Montreal, the Olympic Stadium is an albatross, a stadium in disrepair that is rarely used. In fact, the costs of renovating it were so intimidating, that Montreal’s name was voluntarily dropped off the list of potential World Cup host cities in 2026.

In South Korea, 10 stadiums that could seat over 40,000 were in play for the 2002 World Cup, which was co-hosted with Japan. After the World Cup, pro teams moved to these giant facilities, only for many of them to move out years later. Stadiums were too big for the pro teams in South Korea, and swaths of empty seats killed the perceived ticket demand and the cozy atmospheres their old stadiums provided. There is something so soul-sucking about being one of 15,000 people who look like random dots in the lower deck of a stadium built to seat three times as many.

For Edmonton’s World Cup bid, the city does not need a new stadium, but it needs to renovate its current facility. Edmonton would also need to have practice facilities in place that satisfy FIFA’s exacting specifications.

For city councillor Tim Cartmell, the benefits outweigh the cons, and the World Cup provides the perfect opportunity to create an improved Commonwealth Stadium that can be used more than it is now.  Currently, save for the odd soccer event, Commonwealth has nine to 10 CFL home dates, plus maybe a concert every few years or so. It’s simply not enough use for a stadium that seats 56,400 in a city with a metro population of 1.4 million.

“The legacy is to bring more world-class events to Edmonton,” says Cartmell. With the province promising $110 million, on an assumed one-third/one-third/one-third cost share with the City and the federal government, he sees this as a unique opportunity to provide needed renovations to the stadium that will only cost Edmonton 33 cents on the dollar. This would benefit the Elks down the road, and would also make Commonwealth more attractive to host events it simply can’t attract at the moment.

“The Commonwealth Games led to Universiade [in 1983], and those led to the World Championships in Athletics,” says Cartmell. And he thinks bringing the 1970s brutalist stadium up to modern specs will put Edmonton in play for big sporting events and outdoor gatherings, post-2026.

This sentiment is echoed by Lisa Grant, Alberta Soccer’s executive director.

“The obvious pieces are the facilities, as they relate to the ability to hold other FIFA and national events,” she says.  “The upgrades to facilities and turfs will open opportunities.  The hope there would also be some spillover to upgrades on youth fields.”

Vancouver and Toronto are also in the mix for games. The Unified World Cup bid book calls for Canada to host 10 games, but the province has attached a caveat to its funding that Commonwealth must be awarded five games — two of them knockout matches — in order for it to kick in. Cartmell believes the province is not set in stone on those numbers, that the Conservative government is putting the game-minimum in there to remind organizers Edmonton can’t be an afterthought. We cannot put hundreds of millions into a bid that results in just three group-stage games that aren’t big international draws.

The Lazy Narrative About Soccer

Since I was a young soccer follower in this country, the narrative has always been the same. The pandering stories about how soccer is ready to blow up in Canada. How the participation numbers keep going up. And on and on and on. Well, with ratings of over a million viewers nationwide for some of the qualifying games ahead of the 2026 World Cup, it’s clear that the mainstream has recognized the top echelons of the game. There are three Major League Soccer franchises in Canada. And, even though their attendances and TV numbers are not what they used to be — mainly because they all sorta suck — CF Montreal, Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps all have some sort of national footprint.

But, as good as things are at the top levels of the game — with the Canada qualifying for its first men’s World Cup since 1986, with the women’s national team winning the Olympic gold last year‚— things aren’t going so well at the grassroots,

The Canadian Premier League is still something that is only recognized by the diehards. FC Edmonton is for sale, the league currently runs the team after taking over day-to-day operations from owners Tom and Dave Fath in 2021. A crowd of more than 1,000 is newsworthy. Neither of the team’s first two home dates of the 2022 regular season drew more than 700 fans.

And, those participation numbers? Not as good as you’d think. Before COVID struck, they were already in decline. Canada Soccer includes participation numbers in its annual reports. In 2020, it reported that there were 734,056 players registered across the country — male and female, adults and kids.

But in 2016, there were 818,940 registered soccer players. In 2017, the number was at 776,176.

The truth is, in the years leading up to the pandemic, soccer participation was already in decline across Canada — despite the fact the Canada hosted the Women’s World Cup in 2015.

But there is hope. Jeff Paulus is the technical director at Edmonton Scottish, one of the largest clubs in the city, with over 1,200 players registered. He said that registration for the 2022 outdoor season is up 17 per cent over the 2021-22 indoor season, and that was up 25 per cent from the summer before. (Disclaimer: I am a volunteer coach with Scottish.)

Alberta Soccer won’t have final numbers on spring-summer 2022 registrations until later in the year.

There’s a question, though. And how do we get more kids to play? Is there a legacy piece that the men’s World Cup in 2026 can provide that, frankly, Canada did not get from hosting the Women’s World Cup in 2015?

“We need to look to the legacy; and that’s soccer as a unifying activity with the many cultural groups within the City of Edmonton,” says Cartmell.

What We Really Need

But what could be the legacy projects, other than the stadium? Host cities must also provide training pitches for the visiting national teams. Cartmell says that Rollie Miles is still in good shape, but there are three other sites that would need to be addressed.

But Paulus believes that the key to building the game in Edmonton won’t come from putting in more pristine pitches, It won’t come from making spaces for more coaches to lay out more cones for kids to run through. He believes that we need more places for spontaneous play.

He’d like to see hard courts for soccer appear throughout the city, where kids can go out and play pick-up games.

“Street soccer sport courts for kids to just up and play,” he says. “Could be refurbished tennis courts.”

Kids would have access to them in the neighbourhoods, and could just round up friends to play. To play games until the streetlights go on.

The kids get enough coaching and supervision. What adults sometimes do is forget that there is a joy that comes with the game, and we have to let the kids discover that before we give them formations and tell them about structure and shape.Kids need time to play without coaching. They need to make things up as they go along. Think of all of the great players from Brazil or Argentina or France; they emerged from makeshift fields and schoolyard games. Or, think of all the NBA stars who asserted themselves on playgrounds.

As adults, we often forget that the game is supposed to be, well, fun. First and foremost. And that’s something we often forget when we talk about World Cups and economic impacts.

June 16 update: Well, fuck.