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FIFA officials to tour Washington Wednesday to assess World Cup bids for 2018, 2022

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 12:20 AM

On Wednesday morning, six inspectors representing FIFA, soccer's international governing body, will ride 555 feet to the top of the Washington Monument. With a panoramic view, they will be asked to envision, as many as a dozen years from now, the Mall swelling with fans in colors of World Cup nations watching matches on enormous video screens.

They'll be driven past the Washington Convention Center, a potential hub of FIFA activity, and brought 11 miles east to FedEx Field to tour a facility that, with about 92,000 seats, qualifies to host an opening game or championship match.

And at the end of the whirlwind visit to Washington, the second of five stops on a four-day U.S. outing, the delegation will have a better idea of what awaits the soccer world, should the 2018 or 2022 tournament be awarded to the United States.

"This is America's front lawn, the gathering place for the nation," said Robert Sweeney, president of the Greater Washington Sports Alliance, which attracts and promotes events in the area. "We want to give FIFA a visual and put in their minds what the World Cup would look like here."

With FIFA scheduled to name the host countries on Dec. 2, USA Bid Committee is hoping to make a favorable impression with welcoming parties in New York, Washington, Miami, Dallas and Houston.

"The primary purpose is to show that we can meet all the standards necessary to put on a first-class World Cup," said U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, who is leading the American bid. "We also want to show FIFA that the country is passionate about the game, serious about hosting and engaged in the process."

Although the United States is a candidate for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, FIFA is all but certain to first return to Europe after venturing to Africa this year (South Africa) and South America in four years (Brazil). England and Russia are the front-runners for 2018.

Without European competition for the 2022 prize - a continent cannot host consecutive World Cups - the United States would move into prime position ahead of Australia, Japan, South Korea and Qatar.

The American appetite for, and sophistication about, international soccer has grown steadily since the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup and set attendance records that still stand. Gulati has gained White House support and assembled a board of directors that includes Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. (Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth is also on the board.)

While the U.S. bid has stirred public support through an online petition that surpassed 1 million last week, Gulati and his staff have been working backchannels for years and, like the other candidates, had a presence at FIFA events in South Africa this summer. "We are making sure we do everything we can to make a irresistible case for the United States," Gulati said.

The FIFA inspectors, led by Chile Football Federation President Harold Mayne-Nicholls, are not members of the 24-man executive committee, the body that will decide the World Cup hosts. But upon completion of their global tour, they will submit formal evaluations to the committee.

The group arrived in New York and spent Tuesday touring the New Meadowlands Stadium, another top contender for the opening game and final. It then flew to Washington for a look at George Mason University (training venue) and a downtown dinner. Bob Bradley, U.S. national team coach, was scheduled to greet the delegation.

Wednesday's itinerary includes a visit to the White House; a tour of the Washington Monument, a proposed site for Fan Fest viewing parties during the World Cup; and the inspection of FedEx Field, where the members will be presented personalized D.C. United jerseys.

The Landover stadium, which hosted Women's World Cup matches in 1999 and United friendlies against European titans Chelsea and Real Madrid, would need about $1 million in renovations in the corners of the ground surface to accommodate the field, advertising boards and security buffer.

As the nation's capital, Washington is a natural choice to host matches, and with FedEx Field's enormous capacity, it would become a prime option for major matches. In 1994, three years before FedEx opened, World Cup games in Washington were played at RFK Stadium, which had 53,000 seats at the time. RFK, which turns 50 next year, is not part of the current bid.

Washington is among 18 cities in the U.S. bid. Should the tournament be awarded here, the number would eventually be cut to around 12. The national candidate pool could increase as new facilities open in coming years.

"It is critical," Sweeney said of the FIFA tour. The U.S. bid "still has to impress. It's not ours to lose. We have to win it."

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