Keith Gerein: Plenty of blame for Edmonton’s missed World Cup moment

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After two-plus years of pandemic living, it’s fair to say we are used to disappointments in these parts — and yet the latest one seems to sting a lot more than most.

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I’m not talking about the Oilers missing out on the Stanley Cup final, though that was indeed heartbreaking. No, I am instead referring to Edmonton’s failure to be chosen as a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Soccer obviously doesn’t generate the same sort of fervor as hockey around here, and yet there is no other way to see this except as a massive missed opportunity that we will regret for decades.

Put aside the chronic smell of corruption around FIFA, the up-front costs and the prospect of crowds, noise and disruption. This was the rarest of chances for Edmonton — and Alberta generally — to take a co-starring role in an international experience the likes of which we have never seen before.

Given that things had seemed to be lining up well for our bid, it bears digging into what happened to turn those reasonable expectations into false hopes. And on that front, talking to some local sources, it appears there may be at least a few hooks on which to hang blame — from an aging stadium, to provincial missteps, to the machinations of FIFA.

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To be clear, I do not begrudge Toronto or Vancouver for their successful bids. Compared with Edmonton, one has to admit those cities can boast greater international profile, more recent experience hosting big sporting events and newer stadiums.

As to our 45-year-old spectator bowl, Commonwealth Stadium is still Canada’s largest outdoor sports venue and has received a number of upgrades in recent years. Were Team Canada to play there in 2026, I think it would have provided a greater home field advantage than Toronto or Vancouver.

However, we must also acknowledge that too much of the facility retains its less-than-charming 1970s character. Though money is tight these days, the time might be approaching to consider more extensive renovations.

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Of course, such an overhaul would require a hefty provincial contribution, which seems a tough sell given the government’s handling of the FIFA bid. Indeed, much blame has been leveled at Premier Jason Kenney’s government, to the point that some have even suggested deliberate sabotage.

This is nonsense. Instead, my reading is the province miscalculated, first by taking too long to make a financial commitmentand second by attaching conditions that Edmonton had to host a minimum of five World Cup matches and two playoff games.

Insiders tell me provincial leaders later made it clear to FIFA those conditions were not dealbreakers, then came through with sincere efforts up to the last day to assist Edmonton’s application.

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Despite this, the damage was likely already done. As a colleague told me, “FIFA does not do conditions.”

Some of the political dynamics within the UCP government are also worth noting. For one thing, I was told Kenney ended up being an enthusiastic champion for the application, even though much of his government was mired in myopia and did not get the wider benefits of hosting a “soccer tournament.”

According to sources, one of the more reluctant figures was then-finance minister Travis Toews, though his concerns were mainly around financial risks, such as extra security costs.

Toews, now a UCP leadership contender, could not be reached for comment Friday. An emailed statement said that under Toews’s direction, Treasury Board approved funding related to the application, but that further details were subject to cabinet confidentiality.

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Regardless, most of the anger I heard was not directed at the legislature but at FIFA — and especially at some of Canada’s representatives, including vice-president Victor Montagliani.

Those officials say the representatives at one time pleaded with Edmonton to submit an application. At that point, only Toronto was confirmed, and a second Canadian city was needed to secure the country’s participation in 2026. Vancouver came aboard only late in the process, supposedly at the urging of Montagliani.

Even still, the vision being sold was for three Canadian sites, each of which would get three to five matches. Likewise, local officials were told FIFA was willing to moderate its usual demands and work to lower costs for prospective hosts — including an increased willingness to use older stadiums.

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Naive or not, the local bid team felt it had all the assurances to consider its application a near guarantee, which is why Thursday’s news felt much like a betrayal.

“They were all over us… to sign a commitment, because otherwise the Canadian bid was dead,” one source with insider knowledge told me.

“Those individuals (at FIFA) made their commitment to Edmonton, and when the Canadian bid survived they manipulated Vancouver to get back into it and played us. We took them at their word, and they did not come through.”

Officials at FIFA could not be reached for comment.

There are many levels of frustration here. But it is most visceral for me in the squandered potential for Alberta’s economy that would have come from welcoming tourists, investors and media, showing off our energy industry and having a moment of international exposure.

Likewise there is frustration because our city seemingly did everything it could to demonstrate support of international soccer.

The one silver lining is that the city put together a strong promotional package that can be used in the future to attract other events.

They just won’t be the World Cup. But then we’re used to disappointment.

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