MONTREAL—The iconic image of Montreal is the leaning tower of sport that was erected over the oval-shaped Olympic Stadium and has been holding up its troubled roof since 1976.
But for once, those casting an eye toward the east-end sports facility on Wednesday after news that Montreal is in the running to host soccer matches when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026 did so with a sense of confidence rather than concern.
From far, the Olympic Stadium is an impressive sight. But up close it is exposed as a brutalist structure that looks every one of its 42 years.
Its structural problems are legend: The roof tends to tear and leak. Every so often, concrete slabs have been known to fall unexpectedly from on high. Events are cancelled during winter storms for fear the weight of accumulated snow will cause the roof to collapse.
Everyone knows a major revamp is necessary before the stadium can host the best soccer players in the world. But plans for those repairs are already well underway.
As part of a strategy to lure large sporting events to the province, the Quebec government has already approved financing for facility upgrades, and a new stadium roof should be in place by 2023.
The FIFA requirement that all matches be played on natural grass fields rather than synthetic turf makes it likely that the new roof will have a retractable element.
“In eight years, it’s certain that the field in place would be up to FIFA standards,” said ex-Canadian national team midfielder Patrice Bernier, a former captain with the Montreal Impact, the MLS soccer team.
“I know some people forget, but there was the World Cup in 1994 in Detroit, which had a synthetic field. They just put natural grass over top of it . . . They hosted games and there were no problems.”
There will also be upgrades to the Olympic Stadium’s sound and lighting systems that will occur regardless of whether Montreal is picked as a 2026 World Cup host city, Essiminy said.
Other plans that go along with the Montreal’s bid are also quite advanced, from public transport needs to partnerships with local groups that could end up supplying volunteers for the event.
Rosannie Filato, a Montreal city councillor who is heading up the city’s bid, said the estimated cost if the city is picked as a World Cup location is $ 69 million, but there are $ 220 million in potential economic benefits, she said.
But the city’s bid to make it from the 23 candidate cities to one of the 16 ultimately picked as a match site may ultimately get its biggest boost not from the quality of its stadium, but the essence and identity of its inhabitants.
“What’s distinct about Montreal, and FIFA actually underlined it in our candidacy, is that we are the only francophone city,” said Filato. “Also, we have the reputation of being a city of sport, a city of soccer as well.”
As an Italian-Canadian, however, the news that the North American bid had been selected for the 2026 World Cup hit Filato in a particularly soft spot when it arrived at around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“It was actually emotional because as somebody who grew up watching and playing soccer, I know it’s a huge to get an event like the World Cup and I know the effect that it’s going to have.”
Bernier, who is employed by the Montreal Impact as a coach in its youth academy, said the arrival of the tournament in North America and potentially in Montreal will give a boost to young Canadian players with the talent and the drive to play professionally.
“If I was a 14-year-old player who was in the academy I could say to myself that one day I might be able to play for Canada in the World Cup in eight years,” he said. “If a young player needs more motivation — or event just the one — this is something that is enormous.”