Houston is an international city and a soccer city. But is it a serious contender for the 2026 World Cup?

Kunhui Yi didn’t speak a word of English when his family moved from South Korea to Houston four years ago, but on the football field, where positioning, passing and scoring came naturally, it didn’t matter. Whipping the ball with his new teammates, the 18-year-old has found a common language beyond words. The same cross-cultural connection was exposed on a recent Sunday evening as Yi watched her father’s Korean amateur team take on a Vietnamese contingent at Cullen Park.

Many believe America is lagging behind the rest of the world in its enthusiasm for the sport that Pelé called “the beautiful game,” but this characterization seems out of place in Houston, which is home to immigrants from many countries and a football ecosystem. dynamic amateur.

Houston’s diversity is showcased in the city’s recent campaign to host the 2026 Men’s World Cup. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined forces with leading businessmen and community leaders to highlight the benefits of showcasing such a rich, multicultural community on the world’s biggest hobby scene.

Houston is one of 17 U.S. candidates that will be reduced to 11 hosting slots for the 2026 games, jointly hosted between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which will provide five additional host cities. As FIFA officials travel to Houston on October 26 to prepare their final decision later this year, local stakeholders are hammering the point more than ever.

“Soccer is the game of the world, and as one of the most diverse cities in North America, bringing the World Cup here is a perfect game,” said Chris Canetti, former president of the Houston Dynamo and Dash and president of the 2026 Houston World Cup. Bid committee.

If chosen, Houston would host six games that would likely draw tens of thousands of fans to the city. Some would watch the game at the over 70,000-seat NRG stadium and others would simply soak up the atmosphere of bars, restaurants and gathering places around town.

Host cities could bring in between $ 90 million and $ 480 million in excess of taxpayer contributions, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. Previous World Cups, including the 1994 U.S. Tournament, have strained public funds, but North American stakeholders say host cities can avoid unnecessary spending in 2026 by using pre-existing infrastructure, such as the House of Houston Texans.

Officials said 2026 is still working on cost estimates with FIFA and expected to have more details after the October 26 site visit.

The Houston bid committee also unveiled “Freekicks Soccer,” an ongoing youth football clinic run by the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston aimed at providing free access to the sport for children ages 7 to 12. The eight-week program has already started and slots are open to 600 children per one-week session. Earlier in October, the committee also revealed a plan to build a Football Innovation Institute, which, according to John Arnold, chairman of the committee, will be “structured as a think tank that will use Houston’s enormous resources to solve problems. challenges affecting the global game “.

While many media rankings give Dallas a slight edge over Houston due to the city’s largest AT&T stadium, the City of Bayou Bid Committee touts Houston’s diversity and highlights the city’s success in organization of major sporting events, including the Super Bowl and the Final Four.

The city’s footballers are moved by the prospect.

Members of the Houston United Korean soccer team take a break before starting a new game after their match against a Vietnamese team during the Friendly Tournament at Cullen Park in northwest Houston on Sunday, October 17, 2021.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

‘Offside’ is offside

“If you’re a soccer player, the highest level you can play is the World Cup. For every fan the dream is to make one, so having the World Cup in Houston would bring a whole different kind of buzz to the city, ”said Stephen Anderson, 51, who grew up in Trinidad. and Tobago.

Anderson has been playing with a team of predominantly Trinidadian and Jamaican immigrants since moving to Houston in 1993.

On a Friday night in October, his team’s opposition was a group of players from England, Colombia and Turkey who joined US-born friends in the Men’s 40-plus league. Smaller pickup games took place at other fields at the Katy complex, where players shouted for the ball in English and Spanish, congratulated each other on goals scored, and told teammates which players score.

It’s a scene replicated throughout the Houston area, where different ethnic and immigrant groups come together teams to play in various recreational and scrimmage leagues. For many, games are a family affair.

Most Sundays, members of the Houston United Korean soccer team bring their children to play pickup matches at Cullen Park in western Houston. Last Sunday, the team played in a tournament organized independently from other local Asian teams.

Sangho Yi’s family cheered from the sideline in Korean, but some words were universal. “Except sides! shouted his wife, Sunmi Yang, as she watched the game with her son, Yi, 18, who plays as a midfielder on the Katy Taylor High School soccer team.

Yi recalled how football paved the way for friendships with his peers when he debuted in Houston.

“I didn’t know how to spell my ABC, but I knew how to play football and I made the team. Even though I couldn’t say a word, we played soccer together and I made friends, ”Yi said.

Football also allowed Yi’s family to integrate into the local Korean community. They found out about the Korean team at Houston United through the Seoul Baptist Church (휴스턴 서울 교회) and began joining other worshipers for pickup games soon after.


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The global appeal of football has spread through the generations in many families. Sandra Olmo, president of the Houston Women’s Soccer Association, raised her children around the team of international friends she made by playing soccer.

Olmo joined a mixed team in their 20s with teammates from France, South Africa and England, which has grown over the years to include players from other countries. It became the hub of his social network, as Olmo and others visited players in England and Belize. Her teammates remain key players in her life decades later.

“A few years ago a baby was born into the group every three months, and they were all raised around Europeans, South Americans, Asians, you name it,” Olmo said. “My children grew up being treated as equals by this international community and it was just fantastic,” said Olmo.

Members of the Houston United Korean soccer team take a moment to bond before a game against a Vietnamese team during the Friendly Tournament at Cullen Park in northwest Houston on Sunday, October 17, 2021.

Members of the Houston United Korean soccer team take a moment to bond before a game against a Vietnamese team during the Friendly Tournament at Cullen Park in northwest Houston on Sunday, October 17, 2021.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Breaking bread after training

At 74, Mieko Rivas is still playing the game she learned about 30 years ago after leaving Japan for Houston. Competing with an over 40-year-old team from the Houston Women’s Soccer Association, she ran the full length of the field players a few decades younger and shot on goal.

Although she hasn’t connected with many other Japanese players – Houston’s Japanese population is smaller than that of other Asian communities – she says the game has allowed her to travel to tournaments and connect with others. friendship with amateur players from her home country, as well as connecting with a community of women who play in Houston.

Weekend football matches also become a rallying point for immigrants from across the African continent. Chimad Mogor, who moved from Nigeria to Houston 30 years ago, said it was not uncommon for players and their families to spend an entire day together after the morning soccer game.

“Football is what brought us together, to the point that every Saturday even married men will come here with their children and break (bread) here,” Mogor said while watching a game in Marian Park in the southwest. from Houston.

Houston Black Stars manager Nana Asare stepped onto the sideline on sunny Saturday, shouting instructions to her predominantly Ghanaian football team playing a friendly against a team from Equatorial Guinea.

On the sidelines, substitute players and fans kicked around and chatted in English twi, ga and pidgin, watching English Premier League games on their phones and shaving the Manchester United fans whose team came from lose 4-2 to Leicester City.

Nancy Gold is getting ready for a Houston Women's Soccer Association league game on Tuesday, October 19, 2021 at Campbell Road Sports Park in Houston.

Nancy Gold is getting ready for a Houston Women’s Soccer Association league game on Tuesday, October 19, 2021 at Campbell Road Sports Park in Houston.

Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Asare berated his team after their loss, lamenting the offhand play that led to their loss. Then he opened up the discussion to allow each player to share their thoughts on what was wrong and how they could improve.

“It’s a team sport, it brings out so many people and our Ghanaian team brings in guys from all over West Africa, so even if there is some argument and a little bit of tension, the guys are still love, and this is where we can go on a Saturday morning to just be ourselves, ”Asare said.

It’s years away, but the prospect of welcoming global soccer teams and their fans to the 2026 World Cup is an exciting one for the city’s soccer players. Asare imagines the Afrikiko restaurant in Westwood filled with people watching games, and Yi envisions a similar scenario for Korean fans at the Main Event in Katy.

For local players, the World Cup also provides an opportunity for the game to become even more popular in Houston.

“I think it would be very welcoming to people from other countries,” said Olmo. “You are never welcome in the city of Houston.”

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