Early in Baltimore’s years-long bidding process to host matches in the 2026 World Cup, organizers from the international soccer governing body FIFA cited a lack of public transit infrastructure as a lone concern for the city’s capability.

While an official overseeing Baltimore’s bid said the issue was flagged in a 2018 evaluation by FIFA, he said the city successfully addressed those concerns over close to five years of courtship, making it to selection day before ultimately missing the cut in a deflating announcement last week.

Local soccer fans were disappointed Thursday after receiving the news that the World Cup would not be coming to the capital region, where Baltimore and Washington, D.C., were pursuing a joint bid. Several other East Coast cities were named among the 16 sites across the United States, Canada and Mexico to host matches, including Philadelphia, New York/New Jersey, Boston and Miami.

Terry Hasseltine, executive director of the Maryland Sports Commission and president of the Baltimore-Maryland 2026 bid, said that he doesn’t think the city’s public transit access was a lingering problem for FIFA and added that international soccer officials expressed “zero concerns” when they came to town last September. James Bentley, a spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott, said FIFA officials stated during their site visit that public transportation was not an issue for the Baltimore bid.

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“We didn’t [miss] the list last night because of any shortcomings,” Hasseltine said. “[FIFA] thought some of the other places just had a little extra something, and I don’t know right now what that extra something was.”

Baltimore and Washington initially submitted competing bids for World Cup games, but the neighboring cities joined forces in April at FIFA’s suggestion. Matches would have been played at M&T Bank Stadium, home to the Baltimore Ravens, with the National Mall in the capital hosting the FIFA Fan Festival.

FIFA awarded the World Cup to a combined bid between the United States, Canada and Mexico in June 2018, with Baltimore included among a list of potential host cities.

In an email, a FIFA spokesperson called the 2026 host city selection process “the most competitive” in World Cup history and said the final decision relied on a “holistic assessment” and “came down to the cities that were selected rather than those who were not.”

Hasseltine said FIFA expressed in an initial critique that Baltimore lacked a crisscrossing metro system, but that the governing body’s concern was alleviated by redevelopment plans at Penn Station, the ease of MARC train travel between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and a “consolidated footprint” that would have made for easy walking between hotels, restaurants and games near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

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The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group pushing for expansions to public transportation in Baltimore, alluded to the 2018 criticism of Baltimore’s public transit in a tweet following news of the failed bid.

“We’ve heard that early on FIFA told Baltimore its stadium & hotels are good, but the public transportation is subpar for such an event,” the group said. “Riders know this. They are the key to our economic wellbeing and they need buses and trains to be more frequent, more reliable and faster.”

In an interview, CMTA President Brian O’Malley said that shortcomings in public transit infrastructure have caused recurrent problems for Baltimore’s commuting students, resident retention and city efforts to recruit large businesses. He pointed to Amazon’s decision to site its coveted HQ2 outside Washington, D.C., which has an expansive Metro system, as well as an annual survey by Baltimore Collegetown Network, which for years found access to public transit to be a primary concern for area students.

O’Malley also noted that the Red Line, Baltimore’s canceled east-west light rail project, was originally slated for completion by early 2022, and could have been an asset in the city’s pitch to FIFA.

Aside from a few notable exceptions, O’Malley said most of the cities selected to host World Cup games have “robust” public transit, compared to the cities that missed out.

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From FIFA to Amazon to commuting students, “everybody’s telling us that our public transit system isn’t as strong as we’re looking for, and we just consistently aren’t listening,” he said.

Of the 11 North American cities selected, five are classified in FIFA’s East Coast region: Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and New York/New Jersey. Atlanta was included among the Central region host sites.

Scott criticized Baltimore’s omission in an interview Friday and called out lacking public transit options connecting Boston to Gillette Stadium, its World Cup venue, located south of the city in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

“FIFA got it wrong,” the mayor said. “Foxborough is not M&T Bank. If you’re talking about folks wanting to get there through transit, you can’t do that at Foxborough.”

At a post-announcement news conference Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium, Hasseltime questioned FIFA and U.S. Soccer’s decision-making, saying something about the outcome “doesn’t pass the sniff test.”

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Baltimore “did everything it was asked and then some” to secure World Cup matches, he added Friday. “We went to the party last night. We just didn’t leave with the date we were hoping for.”

Baltimore Banner reporters Justin Fenton and Cadence Quaranta contributed to this story.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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