The World Cup's rejection of Washington, FedEx Field and Daniel Snyder

The World Cup’s rejection of Washington, FedEx Field and Daniel Snyder

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As the bus full of World Cup officials last fall was making its way to FedEx Field from a downtown DC hotel, someone among the entourage, a US Soccer official confided to me, remarked how unpleasantly surprised they were that the trip to a potential 2026 men’s World Cup site was taking so long.

That was just the first of their eye-openers.

Upon finally arriving at the stadium in suburban Maryland where the local NFL team plays, officials were shown repairs of a pipe that burst during a game a few weeks earlier, showering a dwindled Washington football team fan base in a dozen seats or so with liquid that team executives swore was not sewage.

And although the World Cup honchos were long gone by season’s end, visiting other potential sites throughout the county, they were certainly learned of a season-ending event at FedEx that I’d say was a metaphor for the stadium and the franchise that calls it home. Several Philadelphia fans trying to congratulate their winning quarterback Jalen Hurts as he exited the field had the railing they leaned over collapse and send them tumbling about six feet to the ground. Stadium officials said the railing wasn’t intended to be load bearing.

So when Colin Smith, a World Cup official, said Thursday — after it was announced that Washington didn’t make the cut to be an official part of the 2026 tournament — that it was difficult to “ … imagine a World Cup coming to the US and the capital city not taking a major role …” he was just being polite. We didn’t deserve the 2026 World Cup, but it’s not our fault.

Blame Daniel Snyder. Because World Cup officials all but decided Snyder’s stadium was a little short of being a dump.

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Some among us have grown accustomed to our NFL franchise making us an embarrassment in the region, what with the Ravens up the parkway in Baltimore playing winning football in a stadium built just a year after FedEx at about half the cost, and with a reputation for being both accessible and enjoyable.

Some among us are growing accustomed to our team making us a national embarrassment, what with Snyder refusing Wednesday to appear before a congressional committee investigating allegations that his team’s workplace is, among other things, hostile to women.

But Thursday elevated us to a new level of ignominy: worldwide. Thanks to Snyder.

To be sure, the District’s vision of hosting games had been abandoned weeks ago, when the cities merged bids in a futile effort to overcome Washington’s stadium flaws. Now, the men’s 2026 World Cup will kick off for one of the few times in a near-100-year history without the capital city of the host country as a site for a single game. Bonn, West Germany, was left out in 1974. Tokyo didn’t join Seoul when Japan and South Korea co-hosted in 2002. And while Canada and Mexico are co-hosting 2026 with the United States as the hub, Mexico City will host games while Ottawa was never considered.

Even in 1994, when the United States first hosted a World Cup, soon-to-be demolished RFK Stadium hosted games despite being past its prime.

“It’s been an incredibly competitive process,” Smith said. “All the cities have been amazing. This was a very, very difficult choice.”

Indeed, well before Smith’s colleagues toured FedEx there were criticisms of FedEx’s playing surface as the worst in the NFL after a series of high-profile injuries. The franchise all but admitted as much when it embarked on a major field reconstruction project just before last season. Apparently, it was a little too late for World Cup officials relying on athletes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to their pro teams.

But this rejection wasn’t just about timing. It was about poor stewardship of the stadium, rivaled only by the poor stewardship of a once-bedrock NFL franchise.

This may have been Snyder’s coup de grace in killing this golden goose of an NFL franchise. The team I grew up with in Section 312 of RFK is so long gone. The winning waned. The coveted season ticket is no more. Less than 10 years after FedEx opened in 1997, it grew into the largest NFL stadium with accommodations for 91,000 fans. It was either first or second in attendance in the NFL for a few years. By 2021, it attracted the second-fewest ticket buyers in the league.

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That’s not just because it’s a long drive for so many fans, as the World Cup officials griped. It’s also a long ride for less and less reason. The team I grew up with won as many playoff games in the ’80s and ’90s as all but one team, the San Francisco 49ers. It was must-see in person as well as on TV.

The team since then, the one of the 2000s, has won fewer playoff games than every team in the league save the Detroit Lions. No wonder attendance has declined so precipitously.

Now what was the crown jewel of professional sports franchises in the area may as well be a knickknack. No one covers it.

Earlier this month, amid the myriad controversies surrounding the team, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) tabled legislation that would have helped fund a new stadium for Snyder’s football team.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reiterated that his state would cough up $400 million to build up the area around FedEx if Snyder wants to sign a new lease after the current one expires in 2027, but would not finance a new stadium.

And while old RFK is due for demolition, DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the city council are divided over how to use the land it’s on. For now, the city doesn’t even own it; the federal government does.

But there’s no need to rush to build new or renovate the old. The world’s biggest sporting event said it isn’t coming, one more ignominious achievement for Daniel Snyder.

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