June 10, 2018 9:04 pm
Updated: June 11, 2018 1:21 am

Canadian soccer stalwarts say co-hosting 2026 World Cup could transform the sport in Canada

WATCH: While some cities pull out, others push for united North American bid

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With only two days left to go until Canada learns whether it will co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, some of the biggest names in Canadian soccer are speaking out about what co-hosting soccer’s showpiece event would do for the future of the world’s most popular sport in Canada.

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The joint North American bid of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. — branded “United 2026” — is favoured to come out on top over rival bidder Morocco when the 211 member countries of world soccer’s governing body FIFA cast their vote in Moscow on Wednesday, a day before this year’s World Cup kicks off in Russia

If the United 2026 bid succeeds, it will be the second time Canada will host a senior World Cup, after hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015.

READ MORE: North American countries expected to top Moroccan bid to host 2026 World Cup

One of Canada’s most impressive players in that tournament, veteran goalkeeper Erin McLeod, says co-hosting the World Cup could prompt greater investment in soccer facilities, a crucial need in a country where year-round competitive soccer is a challenge due to the winter.

“I’m a big believer in opportunity, and as long as people have an opportunity to play and have facilities where they can train and play, then I think the sky’s the limit,” McLeod told Global News from Hamilton, Ont. on Sunday, shortly after the Canadian women lost 3-2 to Germany in an international exhibition game.

“If you look at the top countries in the world on both the men’s and women’s sides, soccer is a part of their culture, and if we want soccer to be a part of our culture, we have to invest… you obviously have to invest a lot of money into youth development and facilities, but I think it’s extremely important.”

Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod makes a save during FIFA Women’s World Cup quarter-final soccer action in Vancouver, B.C., June 27, 2015.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

McLeod, who also starred for Canada in the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China and the 2011 edition in Germany, added that co-hosting a World Cup could potentially help prevent Canada losing many of its top talents to other countries.

Over the years, the Canadian men’s team has lost out out on several top players who were dual citizens and opted to play for their European country instead, with Calgary-born Owen Hargreaves (England), Scarborough, Ont.-born Jonathan de Guzman (Netherlands) and Bryan Cristante (Italy) just a few examples.

“A lot of the time, we have Canadians who have two passports and we want our best players staying at home, and I think when they can see [a World Cup] in their backyard… I think that’s really important,” said McLeod.

“So many girls know [women’s team captain] Christine Sinclair, and she’s been a hero and a role model for them. So similarly, it would be wonderful to have our Canadian men playing in our backyard and inspiring our youth.”

England’s Owen Hargreaves and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo battle for the ball during quarter-final action at the 2006 World Cup in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Hargreaves was born in Calgary, but opted to play for England.

Mike Egerton - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

As far as men’s soccer goes in Canada, few if any have matched the achievements of Paul Stalteri, former Canada captain who played club soccer at the highest level in the German Bundesliga and English Premier League before retiring in 2013.

But the Etobicoke, Ont. native never had the opportunity to play in a World Cup because the Canadian men’s team has only managed to qualify for the tournament once, in 1986. Co-hosting the 2026 World Cup would mean Canada qualify for the tournament automatically.

Stalteri, who has been head coach of the Canada U-17 men’s team since 2016, says the prospect of playing in a World Cup at home eight years from now is tremendously exciting for Canada’s best youth prospects.

“When you have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play in a World Cup in your own country and play in front of your own friends and family, that’s something that I’m sure is a massive motivating factor for these kids at 15, 16 years old, knowing they’ll be at prime age and probably represent Canada at 23, 24 years old,” Stalteri told Global News.

“But it’s two-fold. Even though the World Cup is every four years, it’s not like the Olympics where you train for four years — obviously in different competitions — towards the main goal of the Olympics. Football is different, you have to establish yourself at a professional club and prove yourself on a weekly and monthly basis before you can earn the chance to play for Canada.”

READ MORE: FIFA reminds Trump that blackmailing countries into voting for U.S. World Cup bid is unethical

While co-hosting the World Cup currently represents Canada’s best chance to qualify for the tournament, that’s something that needs to change, Stalteri said.

“That has to change in terms of the right mindset going into every qualifying cycle… we have to maximize the ability, the technical and tactical part of the game, the ability of the players, with the mindset of being able to achieve [qualification] every four years.”

Better investment in facilities, particularly full-size outdoor fields, would certainly aid in maximizing those abilities, Stalteri says, something which co-hosting the World Cup could help attract.

“I think we mistakenly think of training as just being inside and having a space to train on but that’s not good enough. Once kids hit the older ages of 13 and up, they need bigger-size pitches to train on for the next stage in their development, and that’s definitely lacking in terms of what we have to offer them six months of the year,” he said.

“What’s very intriguing is what lies ahead in terms of infrastructure that could be built that will benefit our young kids in the long term in terms of facilities, which would need to be built for a competition of the size of the World Cup.”

WATCH: United 2026 FIFA bid could see more games in Edmonton

On the issue of Canada retaining dual-national players, Stalteri agreed that the prospect of co-hosting and automatically qualifying for the World Cup is a sweetener, but said he hopes the country’s top talents would choose to play for Canada for greater reasons.

“As a Canadian, you hope that a player who’s in a [dual citizenship] situation who can help us will choose to play for Canada… but you want these players choosing Canada because they want to represent Canada, they want to bleed for Canada, not just because we have the World Cup now but because they’re proud to represent their country,” said Stalteri.

For those who do get the chance to represent Canada at a World Cup, the tournament also represents a chance for them to showcase their talents to scouts from elite European club teams.

“Three games at a World Cup could change your career, no doubt about it,” Stalteri said. “If you’re a Canadian pro footballer playing at the highest level at your club — whether that’s in the MLS, the CPL [hewly-formed Canadian Premier League] or a European league — and then all of a sudden the World Cup comes around and you do well in some of these games against big opponents, that might be the last bit of belief that a club needs to decide to make a move for you.”

Canadian Paul Stalteri, left, and Brazilian teammate Ailton celebrate winning the German Bundesliga championship in Munich, Germany, May 8, 2004.

Sandra Behne/Bongarts/Getty Images

While the bidding processes for this year’s World Cup in Russia and the 2022 tournament in Qatar were shrouded in controversy and scandal, Stalteri said he’s optimistic that FIFA members will cast their votes based on what’s best for the sport and taking into account which countries are best-equipped to host the tournament, which will be the first ever 48-team World Cup (up from the current 32-team format).

“No disrespect to the Moroccan bid, but the bid that our three countries have put together is top-class, and one can only hope and be very optimistic that when it comes to the vote, that we’ll get the bid and win it,” said Stalteri.

Indications leading up to the vote are that that’s what’s likely to happen.

FIFA inspectors gave the United 2026 bid a 4.0 out of five in their evaluation report, while the Moroccan bid scored 2.7 and was adjudged to be “high-risk” in three areas — stadiums, transportation and accommodation. No aspect of the North American bid was deemed high-risk.

WATCH: Should countries boycott the FIFA World Cup in Russia?

While Morocco is hoping to secure the support of most African nations, the strength and last-minute canvassing efforts of the United 2026 team are expected to see it over the line.

If that happens, soccer in Canada could be transformed forever due to investment in facilities and the socio-cultural impact of hosting a World Cup, Stalteri said.

“It would be incredible to have the games in Canada and have kids going to the stadiums and watching games and watching Canada play,” said Stalteri. “Some great things can happen in the long term, not just playing the games at the World Cup but the seeds that can be planted leading all the way up to that World Cup and after for the next generation of players.”

READ MORE: Bidding process for international sporting events is changing

McLeod, who kept three clean sheets as Canada made it all the way to the quarter-finals of the Women’s World Cup in 2015, said she hopes the Canadian men’s team can experience what she did.

“Having Canadians come out and support you, it’s like having a 12th person on the field, to see the energy and the cheering,” she said. “And of course, seeing family and people that you love who have supported you every step of the journey.

“I have two grandmothers, one who’s 94 and one who’s pushing 90, and for them to come out and watch me play, them and all the people who have shaped who I am… that’s definitely something I’ll remember forever.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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