CHICAGO – NFL stadiums will be ready for some futbol if the United States hosts another World Cup.
The fields at all potential sites can be widened to meet international standards if the U.S. is awarded either the 2018 or 2022 tournament, FIFA's World Cup inspectors were assured this week. The fields at NFL stadiums are generally smaller than the 75 yards FIFA prefers, and several games were played on slightly narrower fields during the 1994 World Cup.
"We've assured them that we will get to FIFA international dimensions — and in a cost-effective way," U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said Friday. "And, if for any reason that was an issue, we have alternatives."
The FIFA delegation on Thursday wrapped up a three-day, five-city tour of potential stadiums and facilities, and Gulati described it as a "very successful trip."
FIFA's executive committee votes on both hosts Dec. 2. While the U.S. is officially bidding for either World Cup, its best shot is for 2022. Europe has long been considered the favorite for the 2018 World Cup, and FIFA President Sepp Blatter did nothing to counter that in a recent interview with German weekly Sport-Bild.
Even Henry Kissinger, a member of the U.S. bid committee, said it's "reasonable" that the World Cup returns to Europe in 2018. The World Cup was in South Africa this year, and will be held in Brazil in 2014.
The issue didn't come up during the inspection tour, Gulati said. But he said again that the U.S. would consider withdrawing from 2018 bidding if asked to by Blatter or Michel Platini, president of the Union of European Football Associations.
"I acknowledge, and we have really from the beginning, that there is a sentiment with a number of members of (FIFA's executive committee) that 2018 should be in Europe," Gulati said. "If at some point between now and Dec. 2 we think it's in our best interest to (withdraw), after consultation with the FIFA president or the UEFA president, then we would make that decision."
U.S. interest in soccer has boomed since 1994, and hosting another World Cup likely would bring another spike in popularity. That's not insignificant in a country of 309 million people, and FIFA is well aware of what could happen worldwide if soccer ever nears the popularity of the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball.
FIFA also recognizes that, unlike South Africa and Brazil, a U.S. World Cup won't require massive construction projects — or the frantic, last-minute problems that often accompany them. All of the stadiums and convention centers included in the U.S. plan already exist. Some of the stadiums, like Cowboys Stadium, are brand new. Others, like Miami's Sun Life Stadium, are older.
The U.S. has a track record of hosting big events, too. The Olympics have been in the United States eight times, most recently in 2002. The '94 World Cup drew 3.6 million fans, an attendance record that still stands.
"We did have some private conversations on things that I thought we could make improvements in," Gulati said. "We had a frank discussion about government guarantees, those sorts of issues. Security is an issue for everyone and that's true for any major international event. But I think they recognize that we've dealt with all of those issues, whether it was during the previous World Cup, whether it's in our Olympic proposals, certainly in this bid proposal or in events that happen all of the time.
"When you can show them an NFL stadium that has 70 or 80,000 people in it eight to 10 times a year, plus playoffs in certain cases, I think that's a pretty good starting point."