Dietmar Exler said he couldn’t stop smiling after learning that Atlanta would serve as one of 16 host cities for the FIFA 2026 World Cup.
“I’ll be smiling all night long,” AMB Sports and Entertainment’s COO and the former CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA said. “My wife’s going to ask me, ‘What’s gotten into you?’”
He probably wasn’t the only one in town that could keep from smiling, though. In a way, Atlanta being awarded hosting privileges along with 11 U.S. cities — plus 2 in Canada and 3 in Mexico — might have felt a bit anti-climactic, what with a track record of hosting prestigious, globally-appealing sporting events in the past. A world-class stadium and a soccer scene enhanced by the emergence and presence of Atlanta United didn’t hurt, either.
Indeed, on Thursday, what was thought to be a mere formality was made official by soccer’s world governing body, nearly 900 miles away inside 30 Rockefeller Center in New York. And it confirmed that history wouldn’t repeat itself after Atlanta wasn’t chosen as a host for the 1994 World Cup, the tournament’s first staging in the United States.
“One of the objectives that FIFA is looking [for] with host cities is how do they, as a host city of the event, help build the sport of soccer when trying to build it here in the U.S.?” said Atlanta Sports Council president Dan Corso. “They cannot pick a better market than Atlanta with what Atlanta United have done to our soccer profile.”
2026 FIFA World Cup Host Cities
|Boston (Foxborough)||Gillette Stadium||70,000|
|Dallas/Fort Worth (Arlington)||AT&T Stadium||92,967|
|Kansas City||Arrowhead Stadium||76,640|
|Los Angeles||SoFi Stadium (Inglewood)||70,000|
|Mexico City||Azteca Stadium||87,523|
|Miami||Hard Rock Stadium||67,518|
|Monterrey||BBVA Bancomer Stadium||53,460|
|New York/New Jersey (E. Rutherford)||MetLife Stadium||87,157|
|Philadelphia||Lincoln Financial Field||69,328|
|San Francisco Bay Area (Santa Clara)||Levi's Stadium||70,909|
Indeed, it was always going to be hard to overlook the club’s attendance numbers, routinely rivaling that of other clubs worldwide — recent performance notwithstanding. And Atlanta will now find itself as part of the epicenter of world football in 4 years’ time in the 23rd running of the quadrennial event, with the city set to receive a financial benefit of $400 million as a World Cup host, per Corso.
But while Atlanta knows that it will host World Cup matches, it’s not known when those matches will be exactly. Corso mentioned the “mid-year” of 2023 as to when the schedule would be set. FIFA’s bid recommended Mercedes-Benz Stadium and AT&T Stadium as possible semifinal hosts, with MetLife Stadium in New Jersey recommended to host the final match.
“We are positioned as a semifinal city. It’s not confirmed, but that was that (the United bid committee) put forward to FIFA when they won the right to host the event back in 2018,” he said. “We still hold that position, but nothing has been confirmed, so we’ll continue to work on that.”
As for the International Broadcast Center, Corso mentioned that it was a separate discussion taking place, stating that FIFA wanted to proceed through the awarding of host cities before making that determination.
“We’ve been told that they will then re-engage with the IBC discussions with us at some point in time, hopefully this summer,” he said, adding that there was no timeline for a final decision.
Of course, one of the big questions was in regards to the artificial playing surface of Mercedes-Benz Stadium come the time of the event. Exler mentioned that “intense discussions” took place with FIFA over the logistics over installing grass temporarily, but confirmed a plan was in place, with underpinnings, as well as ventilation and underground irrigation systems, set to be installed underneath natural turf when the current artificial turf is replaced in 2024.
Grass is projected to be installed in February 2026 “right after the end of the NFL season”, but Exler noted the specific timeline “is not set yet”, adding that the turf will be re-installed following the tournament.
“We’ll study very carefully with FIFA [on options for] the best natural turf available, given that we’re a stadium with a roof,” he said. “Even when the roof is open, light doesn’t get everywhere, so we’re taking a close look at that, but that’s one of the high-priority areas we’re focused on.”
While it’s a bit of a unique process, it’s a process made necessary by Atlanta’s successful bid. For mayor Andre Dickens, a graduate of Mays High School in Southwest Atlanta, it’s confirmation of the city’s standing in the soccer world.
“FIFA has found out something that we’ve already known for a little while here in Atlanta, that Atlanta is a soccer town,” Dickens said. “FIFA figured that out, and we are excited, and now the international world knows that we are an international soccer town. Let’s make sure that the world hears us in this way.”