East York soccer community ‘excited’ over 2026 World Cup bid

Despite concerns over traffic congestion and seating requirements, event would be a ‘good opportunity’ for Toronto

East York Soccer Club consultant and former president of the Ontario Youth Soccer League Bert Lobo was just 13 years old when he watched England win the 1966 World Cup.

“I think my house shook from all of the cheering,” he said. “It went to extra-time and England beat Germany.”

Lobo and other East York soccer fans might have a chance to experience some more memorable soccer moments closer to home in a few years. In 2017, Canada, the United States and Mexico announced they would be submitting a bid to FIFA to co-host the 2026 World Cup, and on Feb. 1, Toronto city council voted 29 to 1 in favour of being a host city if the bid is accepted.

“On a personal basis, obviously it would be great,” Lobo said. “I think that would be excellent for the game and the development here in this country, and it puts our name on the world map.”

Lobo was born in India, but grew up in England. He lived three miles away from Wembley Stadium, which was the venue for the 1966 World Cup final. He watched England’s controversial World Cup-winning goal being scored from his neighbourhood home.

“The one that Geoff Hurst kicked, which hit the crossbar and came down,” he said. “To this day, even with all the technology and slow-motion video, they still can’t tell if it went in or not.”

The East York community is not short of soccer fans who have witnessed historic moments in the sport. Manny Dimitraklas, secretary of the Olympiakos Toronto fan club, and vice-president Terry Panagiotopoulos, both 61, watched their home country Greece win their first Euro Cup in 2004 at the Estádio da Luz.

“We were at Lisbon for the final of the 2004 Euro Cup,” Panagiotopoulos said. “We still have the tickets of the game, framed on the wall, as well as a picture of the team.”

“I was feeling ‘football’ emotions,” Dimitraklas said. “At that moment, you feel like you’ve been taking drugs. It was something you dream of, and then your dream comes true. It’s a memorable moment.”

“It’s going to be something everybody would like to see,” Panagiotopoulos added. “It’s going to be good for the city, and I have to say good for the country.”

Toronto is a city that comes alive during international soccer competitions. Pubs and sports bars are usually packed during matches, and it’s not uncommon to find supporters of different nations waving flags and singing chants on the streets. To the Olympiakos Toronto fan club, it’s the perfect setting for a World Cup.

“Especially here in Toronto, a lot of people love soccer,” Panagiotopoulos said. “Everybody will be excited and happy. All of the world will have their eyes here on Toronto.”

Dimitraklas believes holding the World Cup here would be good for the city and its residents.

“Toronto is a multicultural city and I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of people who will be interested in going to the games,” he said.

Toronto’s multiculturalism could be a problem, though. There have been complaints about Canada not being represented in the crowd during home games. Lobo believes this could be the scenario if Toronto hosts the World Cup.

“I would be concerned about the attendance,” he said. “I’ve been to games here where whichever nation we’re playing are represented and cheered for more than the Canadian team.”

If that’s the case, don’t count on Panagiotopoulos and Dimitraklas being part of that crowd.

“Of course I’m going to cheer (for Canada), if Canada is playing here,” Panagiotopoulos said.

“We are Canadians. This is our host team,” Dimitraklas added. “Regardless of where everybody came from, this is our homeland right now. So we have to support and help our homeland.

“I would like to see Greece advancing to other rounds, but I will feel the same way for Canada to advance in the next round.”

Skeptics have pointed towards increased traffic congestion being an issue. Lobo said this can be avoided if the city advertises and tells commuters of the effects the World Cup will have on traffic.

“They’ve done that before because they do that for different events that are happening,” he said. “So you just have to plan for extra time to get there. I don’t think it’s a huge issue.”

Neither does Dimitraklas, who said traffic congestion would be nothing new.

“With all of the construction that’s going on, we have traffic right now,” he said. “It takes from point A to point B minimum 45 minutes in the city, so why would people oppose an international event for traffic congestion? This is a big city. Big cities do have traffic congestion.

“Unfortunately, that’s how the world is and if you have an event for 15 or 20 days, maybe you have to suffer a bit.”

The most significant problem holding back Toronto from potentially hosting the World Cup is a stadium. FIFA requires a minimum 40,000-seat stadium for all group matches and knockout-round games, bar the tournament opener and the final. BMO Field, the home of Toronto FC, can only hold around 30,000 spectators, making it ineligible without upgrades. To the Olympiakos Toronto fan club, this is a sign for the city to build a new stadium.

“The thing is when you have a World Cup here, you’re going to have to build a new stadium,” Panagiotopoulos said. “Look what happens with Toronto FC. Every game they play in Toronto, the stadium is packed. It’s about time for people to wake up and build a new stadium for soccer.”

“It’s a good opportunity for us to renovate or change or build those fields,” Dimitraklas said. “I’m pretty sure we have enough area to build those stadiums.”

When compared to stadiums in other major Canadian cities, this could impact Toronto’s chances at hosting the tournament.

“Right now, Montreal is looking at around 70,000 for their stadium; the Olympic Stadium,” Lobo said. “And then BC Place (in Vancouver) and Commonwealth Stadium (in Edmonton) all hold 55,000 to 60,000.

“Obviously Toronto is the main city in the country; it’s the one that is most well-known. Whether it will happen or not will depend on whether Toronto can actually achieve the requirements of hosting, and the whole key is the stadium.”

If it does work out, the East York soccer community hopes skeptics will give the tournament and the sport a chance.

“I just want people to get educated of how important it is for a city like Toronto to host international events,” Dimitraklas said. “We are part of this world. We can’t be excluded from this world.”

Lobo agrees.

“In the States, soccer really took off after 1994 when the United States hosted the World Cup,” he said. “I hope it would be the same here for those non-believers of the sport.”