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Emanuel aide: Chicago balked at ‘blank check’ demand for World Cup

Germany played Bolivia when Soldier Field hosted the World Cup in 1994. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago won’t take part in the effort to try to lure the World Cup soccer tournament to North America mainly because taxpayers would have been liable for unlimited cost overruns of hosting games, aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday.

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported Wednesday that Emanuel had pulled Soldier Field from the 2026 World Cup bid jointly organized by the soccer federations of the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Emanuel has aggressively courted and won the rights to host several marquee sporting events, including the NFL Draft, the America’s Cup qualifier yacht race and the MLS and NBA All-Star games. But city officials said they couldn’t accept the requirements that FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, placed on cities with potential 2026 venues.

Emanuel spokesman Matt McGrath said the primary reason for the city’s decision was FIFA’s insistence that the cities in the bid issue a “blank check.”

FIFA wanted to have the “open-ended ability to modify the agreement . . . at any time and at their discretion,” he said.

Taxpayers would have been obligated to foot any additional costs as a result of those changes, under the contract, officials said.

“This one just doesn’t feel right,” McGrath said. “We wanted to make this work, but at the end of the day, this just wasn’t going to happen.”

Mayoral aides also said city officials were concerned about FIFA’s requirements that Soldier Field be taken out of use for two months and that any disputes about the host-city contract would be “governed and interpreted” under the laws of Switzerland, where FIFA is based.

Officials for FIFA, the joint bid committee and U.S. Soccer — which is headquartered near Soldier Field — have not commented on Chicago’s withdrawal.

The bid committee announced Thursday that it had narrowed the field of 32 finalists to host the tournament’s 80 games to 23 cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando, Miami, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton.

When the finalists were announced in October, the Chicago Sports Commission touted what Chicago could bring to the North American bid, which is competing with Morocco for FIFA’s approval.

But a source close to the negotiations said the city’s World Cup interest waned in recent weeks because the contract allowed “no indemnification for taxpayers” if FIFA changed the terms of the deal. The source also noted that FIFA was involved in an international corruption investigation led by U.S. authorities.

“We wanted to be one of the cities, and FIFA wanted us in the bid,” the source said. “We’re a major city that’s easy to get to. But if they said, ‘You have to make major upgrades to Soldier Field,’ we would have had to do it.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, called on the Emanuel administration to release the complete terms of the FIFA proposal and provide projections on the overall financial effect of hosting World Cup games here would have.

“I’d like to see the economic impact they’re foregoing,” said Waguespack, a frequent Emanuel critic and Chicago Fire season-ticket holder. “There has been no discussion outside of the fifth floor” — the mayor’s office.