The 2018 World Cup is barely up and running but already we know that the 2026 edition will be jointly hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, writes Liam Mackey
With Fifa set to reap a projected profit of €9.33bn from the tournament, you could call it the most lucrative game of three-and-in in the history of football.
That kind of eye-watering cash mountain was probably always going to give the ‘Unified’ bid an unassailable edge over the rival Moroccan package, though the latter was also clearly not helped by the fact that nine of the 14 stadiums it had designated for the tournament had yet to be built.
Fifa’s evaluation task force had also raised concerns about accommodation capacity and travel infrastructure in the North African country.
Still, your correspondent will admit to a strong feeling disappointment that Morocco lost out — and not just because it was at the fifth time of asking for the underdogs. (Morocco, please step inside these brackets for a moment, I want to have a word in your shell-like: in terms of your relationship with Fifa, at this point might it be worth considering the possibility that, eh, they’re just not that into you?).
With a nod to the great George Clinton, I always like to picture the classic Mundial as a one-nation-under-a-groove deal.
Certainly, the best that I have attended have been confined to the borders of a single country, Germany in 2006 and Brazil in 2014 being stand-out examples. (Which is not to say that I’m looking forward with unfettered joy to Qatar in 2020, a tournament which, as things stand, has all the appeal of a rigged laboratory experiment and none of the intrinsic football soul we associate with traditional one-nation World Cups).
Of course, I fully appreciate that none of this really matters all that much to the demographic which itself matters most to Fifa and its sponsors — the three billion-plus of the globe’s inhabitants who tune in via television and for whom the World Cup is pretty much exclusively about what happens inside the stadia and between the white lines.
On the ground, it’s very different experience. In Germany in 2006 and again in Brazil four years ago, the pleasure of being in attendance was hugely enhanced by the sensation of finding yourself swept along by entire country caught up in the thrill of hosting the greatest show on earth.
In my own experience, the one striking exception to this uplifting communal groove was the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Of course, Ireland’s involvement, and especially that momentous victory over Italy, means that it will always retain a special place in this island’s folk memory, with those of us who were lucky enough to be in Giants Stadium that day unlikely to ever tire of boasting that ‘we wuz there’ to see Ray Houghton put the ball in the Italian net. (For obvious reasons, we’ll draw a discreet veil over how it all ended three games later).
But I have to tell you that, away from the stadia — and by that, I mean even at a distance of no more than a mile or two — the World Cup effectively ceased to exist in America in 1994, entirely lost from view in the vastness of a continent which, at the time, was still overwhelmingly indifferent to the lure of the beautiful game.
And you don’t just have to take my word for it. Steeped in the development of soccer in the US, Charlie Stillitano is a sports executive and radio presenter who is currently executive chairman of Relevent Sports, the company which hosts the International Champions Cup.
In Dublin this week to promote the Arsenal-Chelsea game at the Aviva on August 1, he recalled what the World Cup atmosphere was like in 1994 when he was venue director at Giants Stadium and also why, with football now thriving Stateside, he thinks the 2024 version will be very different.
“I’ve been pushing this boulder up a hill for so many years in America,” he said. “The 1994 World Cup and was more ethnically driven. It was the Italians that were there, the Irish, the Colombians etc. And the one thing that struck me was that, once you left the stadium, it didn’t have the excitement. In New York, for example, it got swallowed up in the normal day to day life of the city.
“Once the game was over, you didn’t know. Like, Ireland beat Italy, the biggest day in Irish football history, a fantastic result, but once you left the stadium, you might have had a few thousand Irish having fun somewhere but it wasn’t the general population.
“But the next World Cup you will have town squares, if you will, setting up different viewing parties. It will be completely different because of the amount of people now interested in the game. I do a radio show in the morning, satellite radio, and we have 34 million subscribers between America and Canada. You’re talking about a 24/7 soccer channel in the US. In ‘94, you were lucky if you had the box scores in the paper.”
So, as ever, we live in hope.
Meantime, there’s a World Cup to be getting on with beyond in Russia. And while one always feels dubious about anything which puts a smile on Mr Putin’s face, it was good to see the host nation defy all the gloomy expectations with that thumping win over Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s first game.
The number and quality of the goals will have pleased the international audience fearful of the traditional ‘cagey’ opener but, again, as in Germany and Brazil, the most positive impact will have been felt on the ground where all concerned with the tournament should benefit from the good vibes of the host nation getting off to an upbeat start and, ideally, following it with a decent run.
Russia should make the most of it. As the Brazilians learned the hardest way four years ago, there’s plenty of time for tears further down the line.
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