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Houston 2026 World Cup reps visit Qatar to learn what to expect when hosting games

FILE - Sergino Dest of the United States fights for the ball with Iran's Milad Mohammadi during the World Cup group B soccer match between Iran and the United States at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 29, 2022. Iran's national soccer team received a subdued welcome home from Qatar late Wednesday, after its World Cup defeat against the United States, a match played against the backdrop of ongoing anti-government protests in Iran. One Iranian man was shot dead celebrating the American victory.
Ebrahim Noroozi
AP file
Sergino Dest of the United States fights for the ball with Iran's Milad Mohammadi during the World Cup match between Iran and the United States on Tuesday in Doha, Qatar.

Ahead of Saturday's knock-out round World Cup match between U.S. Men's Soccer and the Netherlands, several Houstonians say they're getting a better idea of how things will work when Houston hosts World Cup matches in 2026.

Houston is one of 11 U.S. cities that will host matches in four years. Five other cities in Mexico and Canada will also serve as host sites. NRG Stadium, where the Houston Texans play, will host between five and six matches over a 35-day period.

"There are so many aspects to it," Harris County-Houston Sports Authority CEO Janis Burke said. She has spent the last few days in Doha, Qatar ahead of Saturday's U.S. match. "From security to escorting the teams, police escorts back and forth to their training sites and their stadiums, to making sure the whole world feels welcome and making sure that they can get visas and get into the country smoothly, so there really is a lot to it behind the scenes."

Burke is one of two Houston representatives in Qatar as part of the Future Host City Observation Program that includes visits to a number of different venues in the host country. Leah Mastaglio, the assistant general manager at NRG Park, and is also observing the hosting process.

Houston is no stranger to hosting big sporting events, including several Super Bowls, the Major League Baseball and NBA All-Star Games and men's college basketball NCAA Final Four. Knowing the city will host World Cup matches more than four years in advance helps.

"We have a whole plan for innovation and for adding fields and the more time you have, the more of those kinds of things that you can do that leave a legacy for the city," Burke says. "I like that we have more time than we did with the Super Bowl as far as planning, but it's never enough time."

Officials with the World Cup have already made several site visits to Houston to check on preparations for the matches in 2026. One of the most complicated parts of the host process is also one of the most basic; getting the grass for the field just right.

The World Cup insists that all the soccer pitches in host stadiums have the save quality and consistency of grass, which can be complicated in a stadium that's sometimes covered with a retractable roof like NRG Stadium is.

"That grass has to be pristine," Burke says. "It has to be in the best condition and it has to be the same so that it's consistent no matter where the teams play and that the ball bounces the same."

Houston and Dallas, among other U.S. cities, will host the later rounds of the 2026 World Cup. Cities in Canada and Mexico will host earlier round matches in smaller stadiums.
Copyright 2022 Houston Public Media News 88.7. To see more, visit Houston Public Media News 88.7.

Jack Williams
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