Global Report

Canada is bidding to host the 2026 World Cup, and it could be worth billions

Canadian Soccer Association confident tournament costs can be controlled

Canadian men's soccer player Tosaint Ricketts against Denmark

The Canadian men’s soccer team has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 1986. (Joshua Pearson)

The on-field magic in Brazil may be winding down, but the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) hopes that Canadian footy fans will soon be watching the sport’s best players a little closer to home. The CSA announced plans to bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup in its four-year plan in January.

The men’s soccer team currently sits between Bahrain and Niger in the international rankings, but that’s precisely the point, according to the CSA’s strategic plan. Hosting the tournament, it hopes, will provide a boost to the sport’s national profile.

But hosting would be an expensive process: the bill for the 2014 edition has ballooned to an estimated $11.3 billion and the Samba nation’s citizens aren’t happy about it. Brazil defied expectations just by getting promised infrastructure ready (barely) in time.

READ: Seven international predictions for 2014: Brazil’s World Cup is a financial fiasco »

New stadiums and renovations accounted for much of that cost, with FIFA requiring at least eight 40,000-plus seater venues and one stadium with a capacity of 80,000  to host the tournament final. Canada’s largest venue is Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, and the city has expressed an interest in spearheading a 2026 hosting operation. But the CSA doesn’t see a need for a lot of new construction because many existing and planned CFL venues are expandable. “I believe we have enough there to put a successful bid together in the stadia that are currently available and maybe one more that would meet the highest needs of FIFA,” says Peter Montopoli, general secretary of the Association.

Chart showing Canada's ten largest stadium capacities

Canada will play host to the 2015  Women’s World Cup as well as the U-20 Women’s World Cup later this year, and successes with those events could pave the way for a shot at FIFA’s biggest prize. FIFA has yet to announce the timeline and requirements for a 2026 bid. Montopoli says he has been in contact with staff in the office of Minister of State (Sport) Bal Gosal to discuss the CSA’s plans; Gosal says he’s had no official contact yet, but that the federal government is open to the possibility of a bid.

Recent hosting choices have aroused significant controversy, with allegations of corruption and concerns over temperatures at the 2022 Qatar tournament. Those scandals, coupled with negative publicity around the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, could work in Canada’s favour, according to Robert VanWynsberghe, a professor at UBC. “I think what you’ll see is that the IOC and FIFA are going to go to more conservative hosts,” he suggested. “You might want to call it a Canadian hosting experience — kind of boring, but you can count on it.”

READ: Soccer in sun and shadow »

Would anyone come out to watch? Montopoli suggests that 300,000–500,000 fans would flood into the country to watch their teams compete, but VanWynsberghe says that number would be offset by the drop in regular tourists who don’t want to get caught up in the tournament. “The tourist piece I think is a bit of a red herring, it just doesn’t seem to work out,” he said.

And what about Canadians? With a team mired in the lower reaches of the FIFA rankings, there would seem to be little incentive to flock to stadiums to watch our boys in red be crushed by the opposition. There’s a huge appetite for soccer in this country, Montopoli counters. “Of all the 209 FIFA members in the world, we ranked number 10 in terms of number of tickets bought for Brazil 2014,” he notes. “The 10th spot would put us number one for non-participating countries.”

Montreal Impact vs. TFC and Olympic Stadium

Montreal Impact take on Toronto FC in MLS play at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, one of Canada’s largest sports venues (Abdallah)

The 1994 World Cup in the US is widely credited with a renewal in soccer interest that led eventually to the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS), and Montopoli points to a similar example closer to home. “The 2007 U-20 World Cup brought to our country a brand-new soccer-specific stadium [BMO Field], and in turn that stadium brought to us MLS professional soccer [in the Toronto FC franchise],” he explained.

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Still, with players like Bosnia goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and Holland’s Jonathan de Guzman opting to represent the countries of their roots or professional clubs rather than wear the maple leaf, Canadian soccer would have to come a long, long way to make a competitive showing in 2026.

But Canadians should hope that a Canuck team on home soil would go all the way. There’s more than bragging rights at stake — according to Goldman Sachs, World Cup-winning nations experience an (admittedly temporary) economic boost in the aftermath of their triumph. And Montopoli estimates the economic impact of hosting would be “in the billions.”

A bid is still a few years away, and the CSA will have a lot of work to do to convince FIFA that a country that has only made it to one World Cup  should be trusted with hosting it. In the meantime, Canadian soccer fans will just have to make do with watching their heroes on TV.