Toronto is a world-class city, we tell ourselves. Of course it is. Our mass transit may have been drawn by an easily distracted child who wandered away after the first few crayon strokes; we may have threadbare services and too-Protestant spines. We may sometimes feel like a small-time city crammed into a too-big suit.
But Thursday FIFA Toronto announced it would be one of two Canadians hosts for games in soccer’s 2026 World Cup, as part of the joint bid with the United States and Mexico, and the World Cup is just about the biggest sports show in the world. As expected, Vancouver was also chosen — Vancouver and Toronto will split 10 of the World Cup’s 80 games, and there are various versions of the split floating around. Vancouver has the better stadium, but Toronto is the hotels-and-money heart of the bid. The third Canadian candidate, Edmonton, was shut out in part because Premier Jason Kenney demanded a certain number of games, and some games deep in the tournament.
“Nobody else does that,” one Canada Soccer source said. “And the guy who does it is the guy whose city is on the bubble from the start. You know, with great respect, FIFA isn’t looking to run to Edmonton for the World Cup.”
Toronto and Vancouver, though, get to spend huge amounts of money to tug on FIFA’s cape. Montreal pulled out due to cost concerns, and will likely still come out of this a fine city. FIFA’s TV announcement was puffball stuff, of course; the event in Toronto was a couple hundred people in a private event in an MLSE bar with Mayor John Tory and MLSE part owner Larry Tanenbaum as the prime movers. It was a fancy formality.
“This could be great for Toronto, great for the game of football-soccer, and we’re gonna do it right,” Tory said. “Let’s put on the show.”
It had better be more than that. The cost is estimated to be about $290 million to host an anticipated five games, not including inflation, in the city where water fountains and public washrooms are a luxury, but Tory promises that the economic activity from hosting the games will more than make up for Item. Perhaps the World Cup will generate so much money that the water fountains and washrooms will all be open in June 2027.
“If you look at it in terms of the revenues that will come to the governments from all the taxes and the benefits of the visitor and promotional value, what it will do for the economy, there’s a lot of money spent more so than that … that produces less of a return,” Tory said.
There is also the idea of an infrastructure boost: soccer infrastructure and more, and that’s being considered. The only thing the 2015 Pan Am Games really did was force Toronto to actually build something, and now the Pan Am Center in Scarborough is a jewel. We shouldn’t need a mega-event to do these things, and we don’t, always. But Toronto’s track record on infrastructure is, not coincidentally, about as anemic as its property tax rate.
In fairness, these kind of sports festivals don’t often come to Canada, and when they do it’s not Toronto. Canada hosted the women’s World Cup in 2015, and the matches happened everywhere but here: Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Moncton, while Toronto went with the Pan Ams. Canada has hosted three Olympics, in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, and that last one went pretty well once we forgot we had killed a Georgian luger. Vancouver’s infrastructure legacy was pretty good, too.
Toronto once bid for the 2008 Olympics, but the oldest was Mel Lastman, who said before an IOC member lobbying trip to Africa, “I’m sort of scared about going there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.” Toronto lost in a blowout, and China went on to spend an estimated $44 billion to host the Games. Toronto was left with the cover of the Toronto Sun, which read “BEIJING, SCHMEIJING, TORONTO’S GOT INDY FEVER,” splashed next to a woman in a bikini posing on a race car. It was, at least, a world-class tabloid cover.
So what will this be? Right now it’s fizzy excitement and big business dreams, even on the fringes of the biggest stage. The most significant games will be in the United States, which includes New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco, Miami, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta, Kansas City, while Mexico will host games in three cities : Mexico City, Monterrey, and Guadalajara. Sixty games will be held in America’s extravagant, decadent sports palaces, and another 10 in Mexico, where the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City is exponentially more historic and grand than anything Canada has to offer.
Look, this is tricky, slippery business. Getting in bed with FIFA is like getting in bed with the IOC, except FIFA finds a way to run the racket in more than one city at a time. On a global scale, Toronto will be one more backdrop in a soccer kaleidoscope, alongside Boston and Kansas City. Maybe it’s part of the rocky road to becoming a more significant soccer nation. But this could easily be a boondoggle, too.
There is one way Toronto can truly excel, though, and it’s not in refurbishing soccer fields, or filling luxury hotels, or in cadging corporate sponsors and government money. No, it’s that there aren’t many cities that come alive quite like Toronto during the World Cup, no matter who plays — the people in bars, the flags on cars, the sense of a global festival come to town. There really aren’t many cities like this, at the crossroads of the world. That will be the thing to look forward to, those summer streets and spirit, and it will feel like few other places in the world.
Of course, you didn’t necessarily need to play games here for that to happen. But they will.
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