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FIFA officials tour Reliant Stadium to end three-day, five-city visit

The United States made its pitch for the World Cup. Now it's time to wait.

FIFA's World Cup inspectors wrapped up a three-day, five-city visit in Houston on Thursday, touring Reliant Stadium as they weigh potential venues for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

The 24-member executive committee of soccer's governing body will vote on Dec. 2. Europe is expected to be awarded the 2018 tournament, with England, Russia, Spain-Portugal and Belgium-Netherlands competing. The U.S. is facing Australia, Japan, Qatar and South Korea for 2022.

The inspectors also visited New York, the White House, Miami and Dallas before Houston.

Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the head of the inspection delegation, said the group gathered all the necessary information to present a complete report to FIFA's executive committee. He said he was confident that the U.S. could fulfill all the necessary standards set by FIFA to host the World Cup.

"All the stadiums we have visited, with some very small adjustments, would be great World Cup venues. There is no doubt about that," Mayne-Nicholls said. "We have seen a number of excellent locations. All requirements and expectations should be met."

U.S. soccer head Sunil Gulati, head of the U.S. bid committee for the World Cup, told Mayne-Nicholls that the next World Cup here would likely set records for attendance, ticket sales and international visitors. The U.S. drew a total of 3.6 million fans when it hosted the event in 1994, still a record.

Gulati doesn't see a negative in the fact that the U.S. is lobbying for its second World Cup in three decades, while Australia and Qatar are vying for their first.

"I don't think hosting a successful event and setting multiple records should be a disadvantage," Gulati said. "It will have been 28 years, if it's 2022. Clearly, that's an issue for some, going out to new and uncharted water, but we think there's some advantages.

"FIFA knows we can do this, we've done it well, and we can do it again."

The FIFA delegation visited the White House on Wednesday, and Mayne-Nicholls came away with confidence that the event would have the full backing of the American government.

"As you know, a World Cup only works if it becomes a fully national treasure," he said.

Gulati was asked to compare this effort with Chicago's failed bid to land the 2016 Olympics, also backed by the White House. Gulati said the process is totally different, and that effort has no bearing on this one.

"I'm not sure we learned very many specific lessons from the Chicago experience," he said. "We've tried to do everything possible to make sure that we present a case for the U.S. that's irresistible.

"We have a terrific infrastructure, but in the end, it's not about having the infrastructure and having top-level stadiums," Gulati said. "It's about convincing 24 people that's in the best long-term interest of the sport to come to the United States, and that's what we've been doing for some period of time."

Brazil defeated Italy at the Rose Bowl in the 1994 final.

While the inspectors didn't visit California this time, Gulati wouldn't rule out the possibility of including stadiums there if the U.S. was awarded the World Cup in 2018 or '22. He also invited the chance of new stadiums being built there between now and then.

"Is it likely that some stadium would be built between now and 2018 or 2022 that could become part of the eventual World Cup? The answer is yes," he said. "Since the decision is made in 75 days or so, it wouldn't enhance our bid at all."

The delegation's visit to Reliant Stadium included a meeting with Bob McNair, the owner of the NFL's Houston Texans, who open their season there on Sunday.

For Thursday's occasion, the field was set up for soccer, exactly as it was for the Major League Soccer All-Star game on July 28. MLS banners ringed the field, and "FIFA Delegation Tour" flashed on the lighted ribbon signs that encircle the stadium.

The venue has lured huge crowds for international matches in recent years, many of them involving teams from Mexico. The MLS All-Star game, featuring Manchester United, drew 70,728, the largest attendance for an MLS All-Star game since the first one in 1996 drew 78,416 to Giants Stadium.

McNair was encouraged by Thursday's meeting.

"They know the great success that we've had with soccer games in Reliant Stadium," McNair said. "That's very impressive. I hope Houston succeeds in attracting them."