Soccer

Gillette Stadium among sites that find out Thursday whether they will host 2026 men’s World Cup games

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Robert Kraft (left) entertained FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani during a fact-finding tour last September.


For now, World Cup attention is focused on how Qatar, the event’s smallest-ever host country, will conduct the event later this year. But preparations are about to ramp up for the expanded 2026 men’s event, to be held in not just one, but three, of the biggest countries on the planet.

On Thursday, 12 US venues will be finalized for the 2026 World Cup, with three cities already determined in Canada (Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver) and three in Mexico (Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey).

The US candidates have been whittled from 49 to 17. Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York can start making plans. But everyone else will have to wait for the FIFA judges to decide, and that includes Boston/Foxborough, which could be considered among the favorites thanks to plans to make a touch-up or two to 20-year-old Gillette Stadium.

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The selection process began five years ago. On-site inspections, delayed by pandemic conditions, got under way last September, the FIFA crew starting off in Foxborough. When the group arrived at Gillette Stadium, they were greeted by tour guide Robert Kraft, who happens to be honorary chairman of the board of the United Bid Committee.

It might be difficult to say no to Kraft, not only because he is honorary chairman, but also because he has promised to make costly modifications to Gillette, widening the field and installing natural grass. The major question for Gillette is not whether it will be a World Cup site, but how many matches to expect. Kraft is hoping for six games, extending to the quarterfinals.

In 1994, Kraft convinced FIFA to come to the relatively spartan Foxboro Stadium, and the first move he made to show his commitment was putting down a grass field in 1991. Foxborough ended up being ranked among the top four venues in terms of prestige as it hosted six sold-out matches (324,000 attendance) over a 2½-week span.

Kraft again will have to rip out the turf, and though the natural stuff is considered temporary, he can count on an irrigation system that was installed when Gillette opened as CMGI Field in 2002.

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But even if real grass takes root and FIFA’s soil experts are satisfied, the size of the Gillette playing surface presents a problem. Gillette’s field is big enough to play on (75 by 115 yards minimum), but there is not enough width to accommodate security, signboards, and expanded media demands — which means the corner seating will have to be jackhammered out, as it was at Foxboro Stadium in ‘94.

“We have, like most cities and venues, positives and some things that can be seen as challenges,” Revolution president Brian Bilello said recently. “We talk about the market as a destination, and in conjunction with the state and city and Convention and Visitors Bureau, we are one big family.

“We have the Revolution and the rich soccer history of the region. We’ve put together a great bid but we’ll see. It’s up to FIFA to weigh the benefits and challenges. Certain markets are big and world-famous that FIFA would like to have.

“We’re in the middle of that. We’re close to Europe, and Boston is a place tourists will want to visit. The premium spaces and hospitality spaces we have are some of the best. We have a rich history and the climate here is good compared to some others.”

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FIFA also will weigh infrastructure and transportation, media facilities, sustainability, and training sites. Being within an hour of two airports and having three practice fields at Revolution headquarters works in the region’s favor.

Geography factors in, the intent to “cluster” locations, minimizing travel for fans and teams. In 1994, Philadelphia pulled out early, opening the way for Boston to join New York and Washington on the East Coast. This time, Chicago — which held the opening game in 1994 — declined to bid, creating opportunities for other Midwestern cities.

Bilello said the World Cup is not expected to provide a financial bonanza for the stadium.

“The 2025 concert season could make more money,” he said.

But you can’t put a price on positive exposure and prestige.

“Half the world’s population watches some part of the World Cup,” Kraft said “It is so powerful bringing all kinds of communities together. I think playing the ‘94 World Cup at the old Foxboro Stadium made me understand how powerful that was and we were honored to have that quarterfinal, Italy-Spain, here.

“I think that was one of the main influencers allowing our family be one of the three founding sponsors of Major League Soccer.”

The ‘94 matches in Foxborough produced drama: the demise of Diego Maradona, who made his last appearance for Argentina, in a 2-1 win over Nigeria; and Roberto Baggio’s heroics in Italy’s overtime victories over Nigeria and Spain. Two years later, the Revolution made their MLS debut.

“There is no one key area that separates it,” said FIFA’s chief tournament and events officer Colin Smith. “We put it together in a jigsaw to have the best sense of a venue and how it fits in to the overall plan, in regards to cluster, time zones, altitudes, etc. It is a puzzle with many different pieces.”

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Amenities, geography, and high-tech scoreboards only go so far. The competitors are the stars of the show and the playing field their stage.

“We play the World Cup on natural grass, we have a standard pitch size for international matches, and we need a bit more space given the scale of World Cup matches,” Smith said during the Foxborough visit.

“Players in the World Cup are the best players in the world. And one of the fundamental requirements for us at FIFA is the pitch, to ensure they have the conditions they need both inside the stadiums and also the training sites, in order to perform at their highest level.”

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