Houston’s diversity is being played up in the city’s recent push to host the 2026 men’s World Cup. Harris County Judge
Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined forces with prominent business people and community leaders to highlight the benefits of featuring such a rich multicultural community on the biggest stage for the global pastime.
Houston is one of 17 U.S. candidates that will be whittled down to 11 host slots for the 2026 games, hosted jointly between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which will provide another five host cities. With FIFA officials set to make a site visit to Houston Oct. 26 to prepare for their final decision later this year, local stakeholders are hammering the point harder than ever.
“Soccer is the world’s game, and as one of the most diverse cities in North America, bringing the World Cup here is a perfect match,” said Chris Canetti, former president of the Houston Dynamo and Dash and president of the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee.
If chosen, Houston would host six games that would likely bring tens of thousands of fans to the city. Some would watch the game at the 70,000-plus seat NRG Stadium and more would simply soak up the atmosphere at bars, restaurants and gathering spots around the city.
Host cities could net between $90 million and $480 million beyond taxpayer contributions, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. Previous World Cups, including the 1994 U.S. tournament, have burdened public funds, but North American stakeholders say host cities can avoid unnecessary expenditures in 2026 by utilizing preexisting infrastructure, such as the Houston Texans’ home.
Officials said that 2026 is still working through the cost estimates with FIFA and expect to have more details after the Oct. 26 site vitis.
The Houston bid committee also unveiled “Freekicks Soccer,” an ongoing youth soccer clinic operated through the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston aimed at providing free access to the sport for children 7 to 12. The eight-week program has already begun and slots are available to 600 children per week-long session. Earlier in October, the committee also revealed a plan to build a Soccer Innovation Institute, which John Arnold, committee chairman, said will be “structured as a think tank that will utilize Houston’s tremendous resources to solve the challenges affecting the global game.”
While many media rankings give Dallas the slight edge over Houston due to the city’s larger AT&T Stadium, the Bayou City’s bid committee is touting Houston’s diversity and pointing to the city’s successful track record of hosting major sporting events, including the Super Bowl and Final Four.
The city’s soccer players are stirred by the prospect.
‘Offsides’ is offsides
“If you’re a soccer player, the highest level you can play at is the World Cup. For every single fan, the dream is to actually go to one, so to actually have the World Cup in Houston, that would bring a whole different kind of buzz to the city,” said Stephen Anderson, 51, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago.
Anderson has been playing with a team of predominately Trinidadian and Jamaican immigrants since he moved to Houston in 1993.
On a Friday night in October, his team’s opposition was a group of players from England, Colombia and Turkey who joined American-born friends in the men’s over-40 league. Smaller pickup games played out on other fields at the Katy complex, where players shouted for the ball in English and Spanish, congratulated one another on striking goals and instructed teammates which players to mark.
It’s a scene replicated across the Houston area, where different ethnic and immigrant groups assemble teams to play in various recreational leagues and scrimmages. For many, the games are a family affair.
Most Sundays, members of the Houston United Korean Soccer Team bring their children to play pickup games at Cullen Park in west Houston. Last Sunday the team was playing in an independently organized tournament of other local Asian teams.
Sangho Yi’s family cheered from the sidelines in Korean, but some words were universal. “Off sides!” shouted his wife, Sunmi Yang, as she watched the game with her son, the 18-year-old Yi, who plays as a midfielder on the Katy Taylor High School soccer team.
Yi recalled how soccer had opened up the way to friendships with peers in his early days in Houston.
“I didn’t know how to spell my ABCs, but I knew how to play soccer and I made the team. Even though I couldn’t speak a word, we played soccer together and I made friends,” Yi said.
Soccer also provided a way for Yi’s family to integrate into the local Korean community. They discovered the Houston United Korean team through the Seoul Baptist Church of Houston (휴스턴서울교회), and began joining fellow churchgoers for pickup games soon thereafter.NEWSLETTERS Join the conversation with HouWeAre
We want to foster conversation and highlight the intersection of race, identity and culture in one of America's most diverse cities. Sign up for the HouWeAre newsletter here.
The global appeal of soccer has trickled down through generations in many families. Sandra Olmo, the president of the Houston Women’s Soccer Association, raised her children around the team of international friends she made playing the game.
Olmo joined a coed team in her 20s with teammates from France, South Africa and England, which grew over the years to incorporate players from other countries. It has become the nexus of her social network, as Olmo and others traveled to players’ homes in England and Belize. Her teammates remain key players in her life decades later.
“There were a couple years where a baby was born into the group every three months, and they were all raised around Europeans, South Americans, Asians, you name it,” Olmo said. “My kids got to grow up being treated as equals by this international community and it was just fantastic,” Olmo said.aside">
Breaking bread after practice
At 74, Mieko Rivas is still playing the game she picked up about 30 years ago after she moved to Houston from Japan. Competing with an over-40 team in the Houston Women’s Soccer Association, she ran the length of the pitch players a few decades younger and put a shot on goal.
Though she hasn’t connected with many other Japanese players — Houston’s Japanese population is smaller compared to other Asian communities’ — she says the game has allowed her to travel to tournaments and befriend amateur players from her homeland, as well as connect with a community of women who play in Houston.
Weekend soccer games have also
become a rallying point for immigrants from across the African continent. Chimad Mogor, who moved to Houston from Nigeria 30 years ago, said it’s not uncommon for players and their families to spend a whole day together after the morning soccer game.
“Soccer is the thing that brought us together, to the point that every Saturday, even married men will come here with their kids and break (bread) here,” Mogor said while watching a game at Marian Park in southwest Houston.
Nana Asare, manager of the Houston Black Stars, toed the touchline that sunny Saturday, shouting instructions to his team of mostly Ghanaian footballers playing a friendly match against a team of Equatorial Guineans.
On the sidelines, substitute players and fans kicked balls around and chatted in Twi, Ga and Pidgin English, watching English Premier League games on their phones and razzing the Manchester United fans whose team had just lost 4-2 to Leicester City.
Asare admonished his team after they lost, bemoaning the casual play that led to their defeat. Then, he opened up the talk to allow each player to share his thoughts on what went wrong and how they could improve.
“It’s a communal sport, it brings out so many people and our Ghanaian team brings guys from all over West Africa, so even though there’s arguing and a little bit of tension, the guys still love each other, and this is the place we can go on a Saturday morning to just be ourselves,” Asare said.
It’s years away, but the prospect of hosting global soccer teams and their fans in the 2026 World Cup is an exciting one for soccer players in the city. Asare pictures Afrikiko Restaurant in Westwood packed with people watching games, and Yi envisions a similar scenario for Korean fans at Main Event in Katy.
For local players, the World Cup also offers an opportunity for the game to grow even more popular in Houston.
“I do think it would be very welcoming for people from other countries,” Olmo said. “You’re never not welcome in the city of Houston.”
Source : https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Houston-an-international-city-A-soccer-town-A-16554404.php3090