Atlanta’s bid to host World Cup brings FIFA to town Friday

Fireworks fill Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Mexico and Venezuela prepare to play in a soccer match on June 5, 2019.  (AJC file photo by Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
Fireworks fill Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Mexico and Venezuela prepare to play in a soccer match on June 5, 2019. (AJC file photo by Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Atlanta’s long pursuit of hosting 2026 World Cup matches will accelerate Friday when a large delegation led by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, visits the city for day-long meetings with the local bid group.

FIFA plans to finalize the selection of 16 North American host cities in the first or second quarter of 2022, a timetable pushed back by the coronavirus pandemic. Atlanta hopes to land a prominent role in the marquee event, ideally including one of the two semifinals.

“One of the reasons we’re looking forward to this visit is that we’ll actually be able to engage with FIFA in person, instead of virtually as we’ve been doing for the past year and a half,” Atlanta Sports Council president Dan Corso said. “It’ll be good to showcase our region and our state again, particularly for this event with the global nature of it.”

Corso expects the FIFA delegation’s visit to center on “technical” aspects of the city as a potential host, focusing mainly on Mercedes-Benz Stadium, training facilities for teams and sites for a fan festival.

FIFA voted in June 2018 to bring the men’s World Cup to the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2026, which will be the event’s first time in North America in 32 years. The question of which U.S. cities would host matches was left open, leading to the ongoing bid process.

Seventeen U.S. cities are seeking hosting slots. As many as 11 of those are expected to be selected to join three pre-selected cities in Mexico and two in Canada as sites for games.

The Atlanta bid group feels good about its chances, in part because the original North American bid documents suggested the city as a potential semifinals site.

“We firmly believe that we offer World Cup fans, teams and media an organized and ready-to-host community,” said Corso, who is overseeing the Atlanta bid. “We’ve had a lot of large-scale events come through this city and this state, but I think the unique aspect to this particular (bid) is what Atlanta United has done in turning our state into a soccer state.

“When you combine that with the infrastructure and the capacities we have to host the event, it’s a great combination. I think we have a great case for them to consider when looking at us as a host city for matches and also as a potential site for the (event’s) international broadcast center.”

Atlanta United is an enthusiastic backer of the local bid, which has been in the works since 2017.

“No words to describe what it would be like having a World Cup in Atlanta, in my own town,” fullback George Bello said. “It’d be crazy. Hopefully they get it.”

New Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said: “We have one of the best stadiums, if not the best one. We have one of the best training facilities, if not the best one, (and) one of the best fan bases in MLS. So I think it is just the complete package of Atlanta which makes the city very attractive for FIFA and for hosting the World Cup.”

The competition is considerable, however. Atlanta will be the third stop on FIFA’s tour of potential U.S. hosts, following visits to Boston on Wednesday and Nashville on Thursday. By Sept. 23, the delegation also will visit Orlando, Washington, Baltimore, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia and Miami. Eight other U.S. candidate cities will be visited by the end of November.

FIFA described the visits as a “key step” toward selecting the host sites.

The 23-member delegation visiting Atlanta and other candidate cities is led by FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani, who also is president of Concacaf (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football). The delegation includes FIFA chief tournaments and events officer Colin Smith, representatives of U.S. Soccer, Canada Soccer and the Mexico soccer federation and, according to FIFA, experts in “venue management, stadium and city infrastructure, team facilities, commercial, bidding and legal.”

Corso said most of the group will spend all day Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where World Cup matches would be played, and get a detailed tour of the building. A few members of the delegation will visit potential World Cup team training facilities in metro Atlanta and potential “fanfest” sites (Centennial Olympic Park and Piedmont Park).

The delegation will meet with representatives of the Atlanta Sports Council, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city of Atlanta, Arthur M. Blank Sports & Entertainment and the Georgia World Congress Center.

Corso said he doesn’t know if local funding requirements to host the event will be a topic of discussion Friday. But, as with all bids for major sports events, finances eventually will be a key consideration. Montreal this summer withdrew from the World Cup host selection process, reportedly because of financial concerns.

Corso said the Atlanta bid group is operating on the premise that the cost to local organizers would be “in the range” of hosting a Super Bowl.

“Some of the bigger (cost) buckets are similar to other big sporting events,” Corso said. “Security and public safety always play a big factor in these events.” Other expenses would include transportation, marketing, fan events and the temporary conversion of Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s artificial-turf playing surface to natural grass.

Atlanta’s bid for the 2019 Super Bowl placed a $46 million local price tag on hosting that event -- about $20 million of which came from Atlanta businesses, $16 million from a portion of the Atlanta hotel-motel tax designated for major events and $10 million from a sales-tax exemption on tickets.

During a sports business conference in Atlanta two years ago, the chief organizer of the bid that secured the 2026 World Cup for North America estimated host city costs would range from $30 million to $80 million, depending on the number and level of games hosted and the expensiveness of a particular city.

Asked this week if hosting a World Cup would require additional public funding beyond the existing hotel-motel tax, Corso said: “Any type of additional funding beyond our normal public-private is a good thing to have. If there’s sources we can find to help add to the mix, that helps relieve pressure on the existing mechanisms that we have. If we can identify ways to get other sources, I think we will. Every city that is involved in this and other large-scale events is going through the same process.”

-- Staff writer Doug Roberson contributed to this article.