Canada Soccer's reputation took it on the chin recently after a pay dispute involving the sport’s national governing body and the men’s team went public.
That led to the cancellation of a friendly vs. Panama in Vancouver, thus hampering the side’s crucial preparations for this November’s World Cup in Qatar. It also led to more questions being asked about the competency of those in charge of the governance of Canadian soccer.
After the debacle played out in the national media, the sport in this country badly needed some good news.
FIFA came to the rescue Thursday during a press event in New York City where it announced the host cities for the 2026 World Cup that will be held in Canada, the United States and Mexico: Toronto and Vancouver are among the 16 locations that will stage games for the biggest sporting event on the planet in four years' time, giving Canadian soccer a shot in the arm.
But spare a thought for the city of Edmonton, which at one point seemed a shoo-in to be named one of the Canadian hosts for 2026. Instead, it didn’t make the cut. This will be a bitter pill to swallow for the city and its legions of soccer fans, including hometown hero Alphonso Davies. Edmonton has a rich history of supporting the sport, so Thursday’s announcement on some levels must feel like a betrayal.
Commonwealth Stadium hosted matches during the Canadian men’s team’s recent World Cup qualifying campaign, drawing attendances of 48,806 and 44,212 for wins over Costa Rica and Mexico last November. The Alberta capital was a key host city during the 2015 Women's World Cup when it staged two of Canada's group stage matches, a pair of round-of-16 contests, a quarterfinal, a semifinal and the third-place game.
Edmonton also has a long tradition of staging Canadian friendlies — the Reds famously battled Brazil to a 1-1 draw in a 1994 game before 51,936 spectators — and Commonwealth Stadium was where a teenaged Christine Sinclair first broke out as an international star and announced herself to the world during the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women's World Cup.
So, what happened? Why has Edmonton been left out in the cold for the 2026 World Cup?
In soccer parlance, the goal posts moved on Edmonton last August when Montreal dropped out of the bidding process after the Quebec provincial government withdrew its support over concerns about cost overruns. Then in April, Vancouver threw its hat into the ring after it originally bid in 2017 to host games, only to withdraw the following year when B.C. Premier John Horgan cited the unknown costs of bringing the World Cup to his province.
B.C. native and Concacaf president Victor Montagliani is one of the most powerful men in world soccer, and he had a hand in bringing his home province back to the table. Edmonton-based soccer journalist Steve Sandor argues that when that happened, it was essentially game over for the Alberta capital.
"When you hear that Montagliani had personally gone back to Vancouver and dragged them back into the bidding process, that was the writing on the wall for Edmonton. It was sort of like, you’re a starting player, but now the coach is warming up a substitute to replace you," Sandor told Sportsnet.
"There isn’t any bitterness from people in Edmonton directed at Vancouver; there’s bitterness at the process of how Vancouver was brought back in after they backed out. You don’t blame the sub who comes off the bench to take your spot, but you can be angry at the coach for making that change."
With rumours swirling about Vancouver wanting back in, the Alberta provincial government took bold action in March when it committed $110 million in public money to the city of Edmonton to help cover the cost of hosting games in 2026. However, the funding was contingent on Edmonton getting to host five of the 10 games that will take place in Canada in 2026, including two matches in the knockout round.
That proved to be a miscalculation that hurt Edmonton’s bid. FIFA is like the mafia — it isn’t used to having cities make demands of it like that. You don't hold them up at knife point and try to dictate terms to them, which is essentially what the Alberta government did. The fact that the financial support from the province came with strings attached hurt Edmonton’s chances, even though it won political points.
"People have to understand that outside of the soccer community, that move by the provincial government played really well here. People wanted a guarantee from FIFA with so much public money at stake, so that really hit home within the community," Sandor explained.
The current condition of Commonwealth Stadium probably didn’t help Edmonton’s cause, either. It’s an aging stadium that has seen better days and would need to undergo costly upgrades in order to modernize it and bring it up to FIFA’s standards, beyond just replacing the artificial surface with a natural grass pitch.
"Edmontonians have a real sense of inflated pride over Commonwealth Stadium. It’s hosted a lot of big games and events, but we’re looking back at them now through technicolour glasses. Compared to modern-day venues, Commonwealth looks like an old Communist stadium from the Cold War era. It’s a concrete monolith without the creature comforts that most new stadiums have today," Sandor said.
"It was a really great stadium when it opened [in 1978], but some of these new stadiums in the U.S. that are getting World Cup games make Commonwealth look like a venue out of the Stone Age. I think we need a bit of a reality check about that here in Edmonton. We have a vaunted sense of pride about it, but we have to understand that time has passed the stadium by."
Sandor watched Thursday’s FIFA event from New York City with Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and other local city officials at Commonwealth Stadium, and described the atmosphere before the announcement was made as "strangely optimistic."
"There were a lot of people in the room, despite all the recent headlines and reports that Edmonton was going to get shut out, that still believed. There was still this hope, and people politely applauded when Vancouver was announced, but then when Edmonton didn’t get called, the reality set in. There were some tears and lots of long faces," Sandor said.
"It was like if your team was down 3-1 late in the game, and you have this faint hope that if you can score one that maybe you can get another, and then the inevitable happens and you give up a fourth goal. That’s what it was like in the room."
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.