What really is the ask when it comes to Edmonton's World Cup 2026 dreams?
By Steven Sandor | February 23, 2022
Over the past couple of weeks, discussions over Edmonton’s viability as World Cup 2026 host city have intensified, at least in terms of rhetoric in local headlines and from city council.
Edmonton is one of the finalists to host what would amount to a handful of games at the men’s World Cup. When Canada hosted the Women’s World Cup in 2015, Edmonton hosted more games than any other city, including the tournament opener between Canada and China. But, that doesn’t really matter, because FIFA — soccer’s governing body — has a whopping double standard when it comes to the men’s and women’s games. What was good enough for the women in 2015 won’t come close to making the grade for 2026.
If Edmonton is to be selected as a World Cup host city, Commonwealth Stadium needs improvements. The city has to have the infrastructure for a fan-festival area and to whisk international visitors from their hotels to the stadium. And that requires money. By now, we all know about the elephant in the room; that the province hasn’t committed to providing funding for the bid. It’s the same issue that, frankly, existed when Edmonton first put itself forward as a potential host city.
But a key part of the public discussion is being missed. We’re hearing calls for the province to step up, but the big follow-up question is either not being asked, or not being answered.
How much money do we need?
Are we asking the province for a few million, or is the number eight or even nine digits in length?
Let’s face it; while it is the source of some civic pride, Commonwealth is a 1970s era, brutalist stadium that looks like it belongs in Eastern Europe. If there was a statue of a Dear Leader, eyes skyward in triumph, at one end of the stadium, it would feel shockingly appropriate. I have covered many matches at Commonwealth over the years, have rubbed shoulders with many media colleagues from around Canada and the rest of the world, and never have I heard, “this is a nice stadium.” Despite some renovations, including a brand-new scoreboard, that were made for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, it was, at best, a facelift. Here is a collection of some of things I was told during the ’15 WWC by journalists from places like Australia, Germany and the United States.
They were not rave reviews. It did not help that the City did not offer any sort of shuttle service or way for journalists to get from Commonwealth to downtown or Whyte Avenue. We hosted the games, but, speaking from inside the press box, Edmonton forgot to roll out the welcome mat.
In November, FIFA delegates visited Edmonton for a site inspection, and they were also able to see that more than 90,000 fans welcomed hometown uber-star Alphonso Davies and his Canadian men’s national teammates home for two World Cup qualifiers in frigid temperatures. Canada beat both Costa Rica and Mexico, and the visual of fullback Sam Adekugbe diving in a pitchside snowbank to celebrate a Canadian goal ended up on highlight reels around the world. The “Iceteca” was surely a thing.
But, FIFA wasn’t there to celebrate our civic pride. We were subject to a critical assessment of the stadium. And, while there was a feel-good press conference in the end, there are some very, ahem, interesting accounts of what went on behind closed doors. Talk to one person, and everything is under control. Talk to another, and what we have to do is basically rebuild the stadium. But the overriding feeling is that there is still room for movement in terms of what FIFA expects and what it will get. What is the “need to have” and what is the “nice to have?”
The City sent me this statement on Tuesday, which suggests the question of what needs to be done to Commonwealth Stadium has yet to be definitively answered.
In our efforts to be named a host city for the 2026 World Cup, Edmonton has committed to a robust capital program that would extend the life of Commonwealth Stadium and improve the experience for teams and fans attending any stadium event while also helping us better meet the needs of a host city for this generational opportunity.
Certain requirements and facility specifications are outlined for the hosting of a FIFA World Cup. Edmonton continues to evaluate and refine capital plans to address these requirements, while also creating valuable legacy improvements to Commonwealth Stadium.
The current capital program has a number of elements to it including replacement of the artificial turf with natural grass, enhancing hospitality spaces and seating, and improving spectator facilities including concessions and washroom access.
At this time we are still reviewing our capital plan and it would be premature to confirm specific details.
And what does this mean? It’s hard to put out dollar figures, it’s hard to define the ask of the provincial government, when the City itself is still “reviewing” the capital plan.
Basically, we don’t know what the price tag will be.
Neither FIFA nor Canada Soccer have responded to requests for comments on the issue.
When people talk about the changes coming to the stadium, the turf is the first thing that comes up. While artificial turf was deemed to be just fine for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the men’s tournament requires grass playing surfaces. (See what I meant about the double standard?)
That means all of the stadiums used in Canada, the United States and Mexico need a fully seeded grass field. It used to be that FIFA allowed you to get away with putting sod on top of a pad, and then putting that dead grass and the pad on top of the artificial surface. That’s no longer an option. FIFA wants the stadium grass to take hold in time to play friendly games and test matches ahead of the World Cup.
And this brings up the question of Commonwealth’s prime tenant, the Edmonton Elks. Depending on the need to seed the field, and the scale of work that might need to be done to Commonwealth, what could happen to the team? Would it need to relocate some games? Would the CFL need to adjust its schedule?
I spoke to new Elks president Victor Cui last week, and he said it was premature to ask about what sacrifices his team would have to make. “It’s the right question, but it’s not the right time,” said Cui. ”Whenever you want to host a global event of this magnitude, you have to look at the bigger picture.”
Cui is now on the local committee for the bid. And he stressed his support for Edmonton to host the World Cup. So, the football-vs.-soccer rhetoric that pitted FC Edmonton against minor football clubs when it came to the use of Clarke Stadium, well, don’t look for it here.
“We have to make sure we align the big pieces, first,” Cui said of what could be coming for Commonwealth. “For something of this magnitude, first you have to have the provinces and the federal government to align their interests.”
As someone who has global sporting experience, who watched from China as that country prepared to host the Olympics, who ran a mixed-martial arts empire based out of Singapore, Cui definitely shows that he sees the bigger picture. But he did warn that North America is a different sporting animal, simply because soccer doesn’t run our sporting culture like it does in the rest of the world.
And that’s the thing. It’s not just Edmonton that was subject to inspections. FIFA went to brand-new stadiums across the United States, including Atlanta and SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the otherworldly palace with a video screen that’s wider than a football field. They went to New York. And they saw the massive renovation plan that’s underway at Azteca Stadium, the Mexican cathedral of soccer that’s hosted two World Cup finals. History notwithstanding, the stadium needed a major overhaul ahead of 2026.
But, here’s a question that’s going around. If FIFA is looking for grass fields to be established early, would that not affect the NFL in 2025? And what will be the pushback? Or, will there be a reminder that Mexico, Canada and the United States won the right to host the World Cup based on the idea that the stadiums were there and ready to host games. This was sold to the world as a turnkey World Cup. But, these are not soccer stadiums — they are multipurpose stadiums.
With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, FIFA has got pretty well everything it wants, including stadiums built by migrant labour.
The United Kingdom, despite four fairly new, marvelous stadiums in London alone, just withdrew its bid for the 2030 World Cup. Why? Because of the bid’s “lack of feasibility.”
FIFA is used to asking for the moon, and getting not only that, but a few of the planets, as well. The 2026 World Cup could be the place where the “c” word, thus unknown to the global soccer power, comes into play.