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Authenticity, passion, unity at heart of Philadelphia’s 2026 World Cup bid


PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 11: Clint Dempsey #8 of United States celebrates his goal in the first half against Paraguay during the Copa America Centenario Group C match at Lincoln Financial Field on June 11, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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When you think of Philadelphia, a few things come to mind: brashness, passion, Rocky, democracy and fighting spirit.

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And all of those things are included in their bid to try and host games at the 2026 World Cup and those involved with Philadelphia’s bid are bullish about the chances of bringing the world’s biggest tournament to the City of Brotherly Love.

“We always think of ourselves as the underdog here in Philly so this is just another underdog opportunity to overperform,” the Chair of Philadelphia’s 2026 bid Dan Hilferty said, with a smile.

The X factor? During the 2026 World Cup it will be the 250th anniversary of the United States of America and why wouldn’t you have games in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the USA, around those huge celebrations in early July? It would be rude not to.

Recently ProSoccerTalk spoke to several people playing key roles in Philadelphia’s bid, as their recent site visit with FIFA went well and it is believed the 10 host cities (17 are competing across the U.S.) for the 2026 World Cup held in the USA, Canada and Mexico will be announced sometime in May 2022 by world soccer’s governing body.

Philadelphia’s passion, authenticity and unity is clear for all to see, while their rich history gives them an added bonus.

Philly tells it how it is and will bring authenticity to 2026

Alejandro Bedoya played for the USMNT at the 2014 World Cup and is the captain of the Philadelphia Union, the thriving MLS franchise in the city.

He knows better than most how Philly sports fans keep it real and believes World Cup games at theLevel 67,594 capacity Lincoln Financial Field would see that passion and character shine through.

“They tell you what they think alright,” Bedoya, who is Honorary Co-Chair for the bid, laughed. “You have a good game, they’ll let you know. You have a bad game, they’ll let you know as well! I think that is what makes Philadelphia a great sports town, that fanbase.

“Philadelphia has got a character to it, a personality to it. People often use the word gritty to describe people here. We -- well I guess I consider myself a Philadelphian now or hopefully I can be considered one! – we, the fans are truly very passionate about their sports.”

FIFA Welcome on Market Street (Courtesy of R. Rabena)

Rob Rabena

When it comes to explaining what that ‘Phillyness’ is all about, Kathryn Ott Lovell, the vibrant Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for the City of Philadelphia, is the perfect person to explain it.

“We just keep it incredibly real in Philly. That’s what people love about us,” Ott Lovell smiled. “I think that is what attracts newcomers to us and new immigrants to us too. People who come to the city for the first time, it is that grit and that perseverance and tenacity that is inspiring in so many ways. We have struggles. We are like any big city. We have great challenges. But we believe in ourselves in spite of all of that and we are our own worst critic too. We keep it real with ourselves and I love that about it too. We are not all puppies and rainbows all the time.

“Compared to the super local competitors, I don’t think you can compare to this and the Philly experience. We are cynical, sarcastic but we are also strangely hospitable. We will probably tell you something like: ‘yeah, I hate your hair… but I may also give you a kidney!’ It is this weird juxtaposition. We keep it real and that is who you want with you when it is tough, that kind of mentality.”

That unashamed authenticity flows through the veins of Philadelphia’s bid.

Everyone is included in this bid, which wants to everyone to come together to commit to equality, diversity and focus on environmentally friendly World Cup games.

From Mayor Jim Kenney to the Police Commissioner, Fire Commissioner, leading figures from every single city office, plus the COO of the airport, the CEO of Septa and many other all turned out to welcome FIFA on their visit and to explain exactly how they will all work together to make it happen.

A sanctuary which has already united the world on its doorstep

But as much as Philadelphia’s rich history has shaped the Pennsylvanian city, it is changing. Rapidly.

Philadelphia is the sixth-largest city in the United States of America and the most recent census confirmed it has grown by over five percent.

“If you look at the census data over the last 10 years, Philadelphia grew by five percent. For the first time in decades, we grew. We were declining in population for decades. We haven’t grown at that level in my lifetime,” Ott Lovell enthused. “It is largely because of new immigrants coming in. That is what is growing our city and the sport they play is soccer. That is their sport. It is only fitting that we grow with that and that becomes as much a part of our identity as any other sport that we’ve had here historically.”

Something which showcases Philadelphia’s incredible diversity is the Unity Cup, a soccer tournament put on by the City each year which started with 32 nations and has now grown to 52 teams. Ott Lovell calls the Unity Cup Philadelphia’s ‘training wheels’ for the real thing and waxed lyrical about how it has grown and how it has brought together immigrant communities from all across the city.

“We are a sanctuary city for new immigrants and for our mayor, this is the most important thing to him. That we recognize that to be a global city means first and foremost we have to welcome people from all over. When you look at the game of soccer in Philadelphia, the people who live, eat, sleep and breathe soccer are first generation or brand-new Philadelphians,” Ott Lovell explained.

“The goal and the purpose of the Unity Cup is to have soccer connect us. Using soccer as a vehicle to literally and figuratively level the playing field among humans. What the World Cup would mean to us when it comes to Philadelphia is finally validating that soccer is our sport in Philadelphia. We certainly see ourselves as a football, basketball, hockey and baseball town. But soccer deserves to be right up there and it is the future.”

Fans @ 2021 Unity Cup Final at Subaru Park

South Philly and Southwest Philly have been seen huge changes in recent years with people arriving from all over the world, bringing different cultures, cuisines and ideas to those neighborhoods with them.

From the suburbs of Bucks County to Center City, so many areas of Philadelphia will benefit from this bid and in particular South Philly will host the games, have potential have a training site and be the hub of the bid. It is in South Philly and Kensington where youth soccer programs will continue after the World Cup, as undeserved youth will benefit from bringing this huge tournament to Philadelphia.

Bedoya raves about the blossoming culture, arts and food scene in Philly, and says he sees the passion for the game day in, day out as he walks around Center City as sees packed bars watching soccer games from all over the world.

“Philadelphia has a rich soccer history and a great history and tradition in the sport of soccer. I’ve learned more and more about how immigrants brought the game here and playing across the fields in Kensington, Frankford and Tacony after their factory shifts in the late 19th century,” Bedoya explained.

“Today we have something similar to that with the Unity Cup. These are immigrants from all over the world, we are talking West Africa, Caribbean and all across Central and South America that have joined that history and keep it vibrant. The Unity Cup is awesome to see all of the folks coming together from all of the different neighborhoods in and around Philadelphia and representing different countries from all across the world. They are really keeping that history going and it really adds to the culture value.”

Punching above its weight

If you look at the size of Philadelphia’s population and its TV market being the fourth largest in the U.S., it should be right up there with New York, Los Angeles and Dallas as cities that are nailed on to host games. But it isn’t that simple.

Given its close proximity to Washington D.C., New York, Baltimore and Boston mean it is likely competing with four other cities for three spots in the north east for this World Cup bid. And generally speaking Philly often gets overlooked compared to some of the bigger cities in the northeast and it didn’t host World Cup games back in 1994.

But Hilferty stated that Philadelphia’s bid being close to so many big cities is actually an advantage. Being close to New York and others big cities in the northeast of the U.S. (plus Toronto) is key as teams, fans and staff can travel easily between them and get a feel for the different cultures in each host city.

Dan Hilferty Speaking (Courtesy of Jeff Fusco)

He also believes that Philadelphia is emerging from the shadows of famous cities scattered around them.

“When you think about what has happened to Philadelphia over the last two decades, we have kind of emerged from the shadows of Boston, DC and even New York to a certain extent… Philadelphia is a place now where people want to come to,” Hilferty explained.

“We’re a city which says yes first and at the site visit when FIFA came to see us, the Wawa employees and others lined Market Street, fans from all over the region lined outside the stadium to welcome FIFA. They were blown away by it. That is Philly passion and that is why we believe we should host games.”

Importance of 250th Independence Day celebrations in Philly is the icing on the cake

There is also another very big reason why Philadelphia should host games: the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence will happen during the 2026 World Cup in the United States of America.

“When people think of America and then they think of the president, they maybe think of D.C. right? But the fact is, Philadelphia is where America started,” Bedoya explained. “There is so much history in Philly to introduce to fans from all over the world. From where they signed the Declaration of Independence and you see all the Founding Fathers and where they used to live and Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest street in the country.

“There’s so much unique American history that I think it would be wrong to not have Philadelphia be a host city and to introduce to the rest of the world, and other Americans, to where our history comes from. I think that is another great reason for Philadelphia to be a host city. It will be a huge party and if you’re celebrating a World Cup, which is a wonderful experience, and combining that with America’s 250th birthday. What better mix can you have?”

CONCACAF - Jamaica v Mexico

Mexico beat Jamaica 3-1 for the CONCACAF Cup at Lincoln Financial Field on July 26, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles)

Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles

Hilferty explained that those epic 250th birthday celebrations in Philadelphia around July 4, 2026 are something they spoke with FIFA at length about and it is a key part of Philly’s bid.

“We played that up in the bid process and it was from the perspective that the country started here,” Hilferty said. “We take the social justice part of our bid so seriously because of where we came from as a city and a region. We were always very positive about our other competitors while one of our other competitors may play up the fact that they are the nation’s capital, we made it clear we were the first national capital. It is a key part of our bid. It is who we are. It is in our very fiber. And it is that underdog approach. We will overdeliver because we know we have to.”

Ott Lovell beamed as she thought about World Cup games being intertwined with 250th anniversary celebrations on July 4, 2026.

“I have no idea what that would look like, but buckle up!” Ott Lovell laughed. “It’s going to be absolutely extraordinary. Where else would it be? This is the birthplace of democracy here in the USA and the city of firsts. We will have a huge celebration in 2026 and I think it is perfectly appropriate. This is like the stars are aligning around the World Cup for Philadelphia.

“You’ve got the right leadership in place with a Mayor obsessed by soccer, you have the elected officials, corporate leaders, EPYSA (Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Sports Association), professional sports teams all working together. We’ve already got that going for us and ‘oh, by the way, we invented democracy. Check.’ It is the birthplace of America. It happened here so the World Cup should probably come here.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic. This really is a moment where it seems like the stars are aligning for Philadelphia.

Love of the Game Mural Image (FINAL 10.25.21)

(‘Love of the Game’ mural created by Nile Livingston)

Philadelphia backs itself to overachieve

After hosting the NFL draft in 2017, two national political conventions, the visit of the Pope in 2015, plus USMNT and USWNT games at the Lincoln Financial Field and so many other major sporting events, hosting World Cup games would not be difficult for Philadelphia.

From having TV screens on barges downtown by the river to turning entire sections of downtown into a dedicated FIFA fan fest, they are all-in on this World Cup.

“Philadelphia is a uniquely walkable city and FIFA puts great pride in knowing that people will be part of an atmosphere,” Hilferty said. “Whether they are attending a fan fest or hopping on Septa (metro train) from Center City to take a 10-minute ride to the stadium. It is a city of neighborhoods and the transportation network is terrific. In other cities, you’re driving 30-40 minutes outside of town to get to the stadium.”

Bedoya believes that having the games in Philadelphia and close by can inspire youngsters to grow into even bigger soccer fans, as the EPYSA (Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association) is the sixth-largest youth soccer organization in the USA.

“I remember watching the World Cup on TV in 1994 and that is when I first became enamored with the sport. I know that would help the region and those kids and future generations to come,” Bedoya said.

2021 Unity Cup Youth Tournament

At the heart of everything is how people from every single part of Philadelphia will come together to make these World Cup games a success.

“Nobody in the country can run a world class event better than Philadelphia, we believe,” Hilferty said.

“FIFA has a formula for making these selections and those that are bidding, you’re never sure. That is a strength of FIFA. They want to keep you on your toes,” Hilferty added. “We believe that the selection process in the States, 10 sites with 17 cities are bidding right now. We believe it will be done regionally. Our guess is that cities like LA, the Bay Area and Seattle, that regionally they may be creating pods to get teams from different cities rather quickly, we believe that we are right in the hunt in the northeast. Of the 17 cities, FIFA has been encouraging to all but without telling us anything. But we think our chances are very good.”

That confidence that they can achieve what others think they can’t is what defines Philadelphia.

“People think Rocky is just like a fictional character. But that is our gestalt. That mentality of knowing what we are up against and going for it anyway. That is emblematic of this bid. We know what we are up against and we don’t care because we, in our heart of hearts, we believe we deserve this, we’ve earned it and we can do it,” Ott Lovell said, with a smile and a look of gritty determination all mixed into one.

That right there sums up Philadelphia’s bid.

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