It’s easy to be cynical to look at the province of Alberta’s “pledge” of $110 million for Edmonton’s bid to host World Cup games in 2026 as an ultimatum.
When it was announced two weeks ago, the province’s promise to come up with the funds to support Edmonton’s bid was laden with conditions. And maybe the most contentious was the assertion that Edmonton must get five games, and two of them have to be knockout-stage matches.
According to the bid book that the Canada-Mexico-United States group used to win the right to co-host the 2026 World Cup, three Canadian cities are slated to only get 10 games between them. Currently, though, only Edmonton and Toronto are surviving bid cities. So five and five make 10, and it makes sense.
But, Vancouver has been reported to be trying to get back into the mix, after the British Columbia government pulled the city out of the bidding process in 2018. The City of Vancouver has put in $5 million towards getting back into the mix, but that’s the political equivalent of paying a lawyer a dollar as a retainer. You know the big bill is coming, later.
If three cities go forward, the math doesn’t work for Edmonton to get five games. And, from my sources: FIFA will not entertain having only one host city in a country. If Toronto was left on its own, Canada would be out.
When Alberta’s five-game condition was announced, I heard many gasps of surprise in the soccer world. FIFA, the sport’s governing body, is not used to being given ultimatums.
“I think that I take it a different way,” says Edmonton city councillor Tim Cartmell, who has been a vocal proponent of bringing the World Cup to the city. “The event has to have a tangible benefit, it has to meet our shared goals.”
His thinking is such: That at least some of the games Edmonton hosts must have some marquee value, so the city and province can spread the gospel about trade and tourism to the world. If Edmonton, the feds and the province were to spend hundreds of millions to bring the World Cup here, and Commonwealth ended up with games like Saudi Arabia vs. Costa Rica — rather than having top-seeded teams or a Canada home game — would that represent bang for the taxpayers’ bucks? Even the most adamant soccer fan in this country would answer… probably not.
So, in Cartmell’s eyes, the province’s request for five games, two of them being knockout-stage matches, is its way of planting the (corner) flag in the ground. It wants to remind all of the stakeholders that there must be value returned by the schedule-makers if hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent.
Does that mean Alberta has to host five games? Cartmell doesn’t think so.
“We’ve got to move the needle,” says Cartmell. “I can see the province saying that we can’t have just a couple of games that aren’t going to be on the international radar. Whether we get three, four or five games, they have to be significant to our goals, which is to promote trade, economic development and tourism.”
So, hypothetically, if a country like the Netherlands was to qualify in 2026, it would be significant because Edmonton has direct air connections to Amsterdam. Or imagine a knockout game that features the likes of Canada, England, France or Brazil. That’s what we dream about.
“That five-game ask is simply an indication that the games we get have to mean something,” says Cartmell. “They indicate that we have to have value, here.”
As for the federal political side, Minister of Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance Randy Boissonnault is a key player — and he represents Edmonton Centre, which has swung between the Tories and Liberals since the 1990s, and a has a history of being maybe the most hotly contested riding in the country. The margins of victory have been razor thin. And the Liberals, who have found it difficult to earn votes in Alberta since the current Prime Minister’s father was in power, need to value any Alberta seat they can wrest from the Tories.
“Canada and Alberta scored a big goal with Alberta’s funding announcement last month to support Edmonton’s bid to host FIFA 2026,” Boissonnault says. “I look forward to working with all orders of government to promote Edmonton as a host city, and as Minister of Tourism and MP for Edmonton Centre, this is a very exciting opportunity to welcome Canadians and the world over to our beautiful city.
“We will continue to partner with the city and province, and with Canada Soccer, to make this happen and I know it will be great for our tourism sector and our economy.”
But, whether or not Edmonton gets games, Commonwealth needs a facelift. We are not getting a new stadium anytime soon. So, for Edmonton Elks games in years to come — and, in order to attract more events in the future — the work has to be done, World Cup or not.
“The stadium is 50 years old, and it needs work,” says Cartmell. “It would be nice if we can do this work around the World Cup and FIFA.”
So, with federal and provincial dollars on the table, that work can be done at a split that costs the City of Edmonton 33 cents for every dollar. But, without the World Cup, there is still work that will need to be done, and that could get pushed onto the Edmonton taxpayer at 100 per cent.