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Edward Keenan: Bringing World Cup matches to Toronto could be the catalyst for something bigger

Hosting smaller events may be a valuable exercise in taking stock, looking at projects that could be done, planning and funding and moving towards them.

In this July, 2014 file photo, German players reach out to touch the trophy after they clinch the World Cup title with a win over Argentina. Toronto city council is being asked to approve being a host city in a united North American bid from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File

In this July, 2014 file photo, German players reach out to touch the trophy after they clinch the World Cup title with a win over Argentina. Toronto city council is being asked to approve being a host city in a united North American bid from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

So, Toronto may be bidding to be one of the host cities of the2026World Cup. Sounds like a helluva party to co-host.

I admit I am not much of a soccer fan, some recent fond attention to Toronto FC aside. I’ve been paying much more attention to Toronto’s long-running (and often long-shot) bid to co-host the Stanley Cup finals.

But if you’ve lived in Toronto during any World Cup tournament, even those being played on the other side of the world, you already know the city comes alive to celebrate the event. In bars and cafes and living rooms across the city, people sit together and watch through the afternoon and evening. After games, a million car horns blare, and the flags of every nation are paraded as a moveable feast of a street party visits neighbourhoods from one end of this place to the other, lasting for weeks on end. The audience is already here. It would be tremendous to bring the games themselves — even a few of them — here for them.

The plan, which city council is being asked to approve on condition we get support from the provincial and federal governments, is to join as one of a bunch of host cities in a united North American bid from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Toronto would likely host three to five games (out of 80 across the continent during the tournament) at BMO Field. The cost is relatively low by the standards of international event hosting, roughly $30 million to $45 million, split with the other levels of government. But it would likely bring plenty of tourists, plus of course the eyes of the world to the city for what is likely the world’s biggest sporting event.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of what I think is the greatest sporting event on Earth at a very limited cost,” Mayor John Tory told the Star this week. “I don’t know why anyone would say, ‘Don’t do this.’”

But of course some people will say that. They say it whenever Toronto contemplates hosting any major dog-and-pony show. Often, I’ve been one of them — concerned about the cost and the corruption of the bodies that run these events and the amount of civic energy directed into them that should be expended on things the city needs for its own sake.

This one’s a bit different. The city investing $10 million to $20 million to be co-host with dozens of other cities, for example, is a less substantial commitment than the billions of dollars and decades of construction involved in an Olympic bid.

It’s just by random chance that this news comes as I’m reading Greater Than Ever: New York’s Big Comeback by Daniel Doctoroff, who served as deputy mayor for economic development under New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and now is the head of Google’s Sidewalk Labs (that is planning to build a “smart city” neighbourhood in Toronto). The book details the astonishing and successful city building efforts of the Bloomberg administration after 9/11, from affordable housing to transit and new commercial business and parks, and everything in between.

The interesting thing is how Doctoroff leads off his version of the story by saying the inspiration for much of what followed was his attendance at a World Cup game at Giants Stadium in 1994. At the time he was an investment banker, but he was so inspired by the diversity of New York and the energy of the event that he then began planning and organizing an Olympic bid for the city. That bid, and his planning of it as a catalyst for building things his city had long needed, eventually took him into government under Bloomberg. The bid itself failed — those games went to London — but an astonishing amount of amazing city building in all five boroughs of New York, from Hudson Yards and Long Island City to the city’s first new subway construction in 25 years, came out of the planning, deadlines and concerted government and business-sector efforts of that Olympic bid.

These are exactly the kinds of thing that those who pitch mega-events always promise hosting them will bring — and the exact kinds of things that opponents of mega-events claim cities should be building instead of hosting them. New York, according to Doctoroff’s perspective, got those things at least in part because of the bid, and it got them even though the bid wasn’t successful. Which to many people would look like just about the perfect outcome.

We’re not talking about an Olympic bid here, of course — nothing like it, which is for the best. But on a smaller scale, it seems, hosting things and bidding for things may be a valuable exercise in taking stock, looking at projects that could be done, planning and funding and moving towards them. Whether that’s the Pan-Am or Invictus Games or a co-hosted World Cup, or a pitch for a new Amazon headquarters that could also function as a bid to the global business community at large. It seems it’s useful to have a reason to focus on what we have and what we could do with it, to put blueprints together and generate momentum that should outlast the bid or the event itself.

Of course, like most people, I wish we could just focus on those things because they are good things to focus on, for us and our own needs — plan new affordable housing and transit not because it’s needed for some games event, but because it’s needed in general. But maybe people in general aren’t good at that, and need events and milestones (weddings, New Year’s resolutions, school calendars) to set deadlines and create goals for them.

Co-hosting the World Cup — at least as presented in this bid — is a relatively modest goal, that promises relatively modest results. But it would be fun, for a city that already hosts residents who cheer for virtually all the teams in the tournament, and one where many live and breathe the game.

And who knows, maybe at one of those games a local city-builder-in-waiting will look around and be inspired by the diversity and energy and capacity of this city. Maybe a few games on the world stage could inspire us to dream and to make something of those dreams. Or even just to chant and cheer and appreciate what we have when we celebrate together, during the world’s biggest party.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca. Follow: @thekeenanwire

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