Tue, 07 Dec 2021

Ben Swanson

DENVER - It starts with the field.

The foundation to any football game is the ground upon which it's played.

The same holds true for the international kind of football that Americans know as soccer, and based on that tenet, the Broncos' home may soon host the best the world has to offer.

With representatives from FIFA in town on Monday, local luminaries including Broncos President and CEO Joe Ellis welcomed them and media at Empower Field at Mile High to put their best foot forward as the city hopes to become one of several hosts for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will be held across North America.

And that stadium - where more than 70,000 fans may flock to watch the world's best soccer teams go head to head - is the foundation of Denver's bid.

"It starts with the pitch, it starts with the stadium, and then we build all around that," said Victor Montagliani, president of CONCACAF [Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football] and vice president of FIFA.

With the stadium's track record of hosting top-level American football games, recent CONCACAF games, concerts and other massive events, local officials said Denver should be a top candidate for one of limited spots across America.

"This stadium has hosted some iconic events in its 20-year history - AFC Championship games featuring the Denver Broncos; concerts including the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks and U2, among many others; former President Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention; and this past June, this stadium was host to the U.S. Men's National Team's 3-2 victory over Mexico in one of the most exciting games in CONCACAF history," said Matthew Payne, executive director of the Denver Sports Commission. "There is magic in this stadium, and we think it will be an amazing venue to host World Cup soccer matches in 2026."

Denver is vying for the honor with 17 other candidates in America. In the original bid that FIFA accepted, the U.S. was intended to host three quarters of the matches; should that still be the case, America would get 12 host cities.

Boiling down what makes a successful host bid is hard to do, aside from having a great stadium and field. Population may not be a huge factor - "People will take whatever modes of transportation to get to that match to watch it and watch their country play in the World Cup," Montagliani said - but there are more pieces to the puzzle than just the field and population size.

"We look at the geographic spread," said Colin Smith, FIFA's Chief Tournaments and Events Officer. "Obviously, when you look at the footprint of US, Canada, Mexico, it's huge. I think it's the largest footprint we've had for a World Cup. One of the critical elements, again, is coming back to the teams. It's important that the teams are not crisscrossing such a huge territory, and we look at clusters and we look at how can we ensure that the teams are treated equally within the realms of possibility and travel distances are maintained to a certain limit. So that's where it's important that we have this spread of cities across the three countries - north, south, east, west - in order to ensure that. Obviously, that's from the player side. Then you have the fans, as well - obviously a critical component of any World Cup. And again, geographic spread is important - not only to tap into the resident communities that are present across the country but also to have those locations for fans traveling as well."

But regardless of which cities come out successful in their bids, the longest-lasting impact may be evident in the people they inspire - like Tim Howard, the former Colorado Rapids goalkeeper who also participated in three World Cups.

"I'm supporting this host bid because I've seen what the power of a World Cup can do," Howard said. "I've seen the way it can galvanize communities. It can bring hope to kids. Particularly, the youth of our city and of our country. I was one of those kids. I'll take it back to 1994, the last time we hosted a World Cup, and I was 15 years old. I remember looking at these US Men's National Team players thinking, 'One day, I'm going to be them.' I didn't know how I was going to make it. I just decided this is what I wanted to do. And then, thankfully, three times - 2006, 2010 and then 2014 - I was able to represent my country in three World Cups. And when you're a young kid, no matter what club team you play, whether you play here in America or abroad, the one thing you want to do, beyond anything, is represent your country. And to do it in a World Cup is like nothing you've ever seen, it's like nothing you've ever felt. It's vibrant. It's the pinnacle of everything we do as players."

Howard, like the committee trying to bring the World Cup to Denver, hopes that children in this city - which "has my heart," he says - can be similarly inspired by world-class soccer in their backyard.

"We are poised and ready to make this the best World Cup and the best host city there has been," Howard said. "When I think about the fans, when I think about the passion - as I said, I spent four years here, this was my home. I've been to stadiums in this city that have been standing room only. We have more passion than I've ever seen. And this is why - even though I'm a kid from New Jersey - this is why I call it home."

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