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Tampa Bay area applies to be World Cup site

TAMPA — The food was neatly arranged and ready to be served. The champagne bottles were on ice and ready to be popped.

But the celebration never happened as Orlando — and not Tampa Bay — was chosen as one of nine communities to host 1994 World Cup soccer games. Despite the crushing disappointment of that day, Cecil Edge, the chairman of the area's bid, saved all the materials he had amassed.

"There might be another day," he told himself.

That day has come.

The United States is seeking the World Cup again, in 2018 or 2022, and Tampa Bay is looking to play a part. Local officials flew to New York last week to hand-deliver their proposal to the USA Bid Committee.

In all, 37 cities were sent RFPs (requests for proposal), including Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville. The U.S. bid is due in May 2010 and FIFA, the sport's governing body, is expected to announce host nations for 2018 and 2022 by December 2010.

"It's impossible to predict at this time how we're going to get down to FIFA's requirement of no more than 18 recommendations. We might try to convince them to let us have a couple more since we have so many extraordinary choices,'' said U.S. Soccer president and USA Bid Committee chairman Sunil Gulati. "But we'll certainly look very strongly at Tampa.''

So what's the biggest difference between the early 1990s and now? For starters, instead of Tampa Stadium, the bid begins with Raymond James Stadium. That looms large.

"This facility was built with hosting World Cup in mind," said Mickey Farrell, the Tampa Sports Authority's director of operations.

Tampa Stadium was not. It was cited as a prime reason for the decision to go elsewhere.

The old field, including sideline space, was 73 yards wide — or about 13 yards shy of the desired dimension. Stadium officials were willing to remove the two side walls and 400 total seats at a cost of more than $1 million, but that would still leave it a couple of yards short. To do more would have affected structural integrity and cost far more in dollars and seats.

Local officials also faced removing the field's crown as well, but even with all of the proposed modifications, the sight lines weren't soccer-friendly.

Raymond James has no such shortcomings. Its width is 89.7 yards (the specification from FIFA is now 87.5 yards). There is no crown on the field and the soccer sight lines are ideal.

"It's like night and day comparing the stadiums," said Farrukh Quraishi, a former star with the Tampa Bay Rowdies who helped with the bay area bid and was then hired away to run the show in Orlando. He joined the Tampa Bay delegation on the trip to New York last week.

"I can't imagine there's many, if any, stadiums in the country that are better suited for international soccer than Raymond James," Quraishi said.

Another potential plus this time around is a change in the ownership of the stadium's principal tenant. Current Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer is more interested in soccer than his predecessor, Hugh Culverhouse. Glazer owns soccer's most renowned club, Manchester United, and his family figures to be far more engaged.

"We are in full support of the World Cup bid and will do all that we can to ensure that the process is a success," said Brian Ford, the Bucs' vice president of business administration. "The World Cup is truly one of the greatest spectacles in all of sport and would present a unique opportunity for the Tampa Bay community to be on the world's stage."

FIFA reports that Germany, the host nation for the 2006 World Cup, saw an economic impact of $6.2 billion, up from $4 billion in 1994.

"I'm excited about them cranking up and going for another World Cup," said Edge, the bid chairman. "Raymond James would have overcome a lot of the objections we heard (before). We didn't have the number of hotel rooms that they have in Orlando (area) and I don't know if you'll ever be able to overcome that, but we're in a much better position now."

Brian Landman can be reached at (813) 226-3347 or landman@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay area applies to be World Cup site 08/02/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 2, 2009 9:04pm]
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