Though the 2026 FIFA World Cup is six years off, Maryland officials are making their pitch to bring soccer’s biggest tournament to the Old Line State. A team spearheaded by Maryland Sports executive director Terry Hasseltine and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford presented its bid to FIFA officials July 20, seeking to secure Baltimore as one of the American host cities during the tournament.
“It is something that would bring a lot of benefits to the area, Baltimore in particular, and I think it [would be] a game-changer for the city,” Rutherford said on Glenn Clark Radio Aug. 4.
The United States was named co-host of the 2026 World Cup in June 2018 along with Canada and Mexico. It will be the second time the U.S. has hosted the competition, with the first coming in 1994. The 2026 tournament will be the first to feature 48 teams, up from the 32 clubs standard since 1998.
Seventeen American cities are vying to host matches, of which 10 will be selected. Canada and Mexico will each have three host sites — Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto north of the border, and Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey south of the border.
For Rutherford, Baltimore’s biggest advantage is M&T Bank Stadium. It has hosted several soccer matches before — most recently in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup — and is located in the city’s downtown, close to hotels, public transit and various attractions. But beyond that, the Republican said he believes bringing games to Baltimore will help grow the sport in the area.
“If FIFA’s looking to have an impact on a community, on a city, I think coming to Baltimore brings people and revenue but also increases awareness for the sport,” Rutherford said. “We already have some 70,000 kids in the state that are playing youth soccer … and I think [the World Cup will] further bring the game into prominence in this part of the Mid-Atlantic.”
Part of the group’s pitch — which had to be delivered via Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic — also involves touting future improvements planned for the city. Rutherford cited several projects underway or awaiting approval, including the Port Covington development a little more than a mile from the stadium.
That project could include construction on a soccer-specific stadium if a group led by developer Marc Weller secures approval for an expansion franchise in the second-tier USL Championship.
“You are pitching the here and now but also the plans that are on the drawing board and are planned for the next couple of years to be there before the World Cup would get here,” Rutherford said of the group’s proposal.
But none of this is certain, and Baltimore faces stiff competition from several nearby cities, including Washington, D.C, and Philadelphia. The Washington pitch includes contesting matches at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., and though Rutherford said that would bring welcome revenue to the state if that bid is successful, he still prefers Baltimore as a host due to nicer facilities and a more central location.
And even if Charm City is not chosen to host matches, Baltimore could still house a team’s base camp and training site or the large FIFA planning workshop ahead of the World Cup.
For now, Rutherford and his group have much work to do. FIFA officials presented numerous questions about the bid at the July 20 meeting, which Rutherford said his team will work to answer during the coming weeks. The officials also want to visit Baltimore and tour the stadium later this year if the pandemic eases.
But the lieutenant governor is welcoming these challenges and likes his team’s pitch as the bidding process continues.
“Maybe some would say I’m naive, but I feel optimistic because we stack up well against our competition,” Rutherford said. “It would [ultimately] bring not only a lot of attention but resources to the city and gets to put us up on the world stage.”
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For more from Rutherford, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Executive Office of the Governor