World Cup decision shouldn't affect soccer's growth in Atlanta

The failure of the United States to secure the 2022 World Cup shouldn't negatively affect the long-term growth of the sport in Atlanta, city officials said Thursday.

But it is, they agreed, an opportunity missed for the sport's growth and the city's coffers.

Atlanta was one of 18 cities included as a potential host site in the United States' bid. Instead, FIFA, world soccer's governing body, awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a small country in the Middle East, and the 2018 event to Russia. Both results were surprising to observers of the sport around the world, including a large group of city leaders and businessmen who gathered at Stats restaurant in downtown Atlanta to watch the announcement.

The United States was competing against four other countries, including Australia, Japan, Korea and Qatar for 2022. Russia was competing against England, which seemed to be the favorite, and joint bids from Spain/Portugal and Belgium/Netherlands.

When FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced 2022 winner, many in the restaurant turned and looked at the patron next to them, mouths open and eyebrows furrowed.

Had the United States won and Atlanta eventually had made the cut as one of 12 host cities, it would have had an economic benefit of at least $300 million, according to Atlanta bid chairman Gary Stokan.

"The passion is still there for soccer," Stokan said. "We are a diversified, international city. Soccer is a diversified sport."

Despite the setback, Stokan said the city's soccer cabinet, a group of CEOs of Atlanta-based businesses, said they will work toward several goals that have been established within the past year to grow the sport in the city:

  • Turn the Atlanta Cup into the biggest youth soccer tournament in country. The event included 650 teams earlier this year. However, more fields are needed. Rick Skirvin, executive director of the Georgia State Soccer Association, said the tournament used 100 fields at as many as 28 complexes throughout the region. But without more fields it will be hard to grow the event. He would like to see a complex in Atlanta that has as many as 20 fields. There is hope that the new Beltline project will include a soccer complex. There are more than 80,000 players in the GSA's leagues.
  • Continue to host matches featuring international teams. The Georgia Dome has hosted three games within the past two years that have combined to draw more than 140,000 fans.
  • Secure a match featuring the U.S. men's national team, which hasn't played in the city since it defeated China 1-0 in 1977. Stokan and U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said they are working to try to bring either the men's or women's national teams to the city, but noted that there are limited numbers of opportunities.
  • Continue to pursue an MLS team. Falcons owner Arthur Blank has expressed interest in bringing a team to the city, but the Georgia Dome issue must be resolved, which is also one of the cabinet's goals. Mayor Kasim Reed, who attended the viewing party, said he hopes an MLS team comes to the city and that a new outdoor stadium is built. Atlanta is the largest TV market in the country without a team in the league. MLS commissioner Don Garber said the league won't be national until it has a team in the Southeast.