PHILADELPHIA — It has been 19 years since Lincoln Financial Field first opened, but Tony Leonard hasn’t forgotten the planning for the stadium’s first event.

“We’re going to bring this team from Europe over, Manchester United,” the Eagles’ veteran director of grounds recalled in an interview with The Inquirer. “And you’re like, ‘Who?’”

It didn’t take long for the people asking to get an answer. Five months before Manchester United and Spain’s Barcelona christened the Linc with a soccer exhibition on Aug. 3, 2003, tickets sold out within two hours of going on sale on March 18.

That summer night in South Philadelphia immediately vaulted the stadium and the city into the consciousness of soccer power brokers, from MLS to Concacaf all the way to FIFA.

In fact, just the act of selling the game out in two hours in March got attention. Two months before Lincoln Financial Field opened, FIFA picked it as one of six venues for that year’s women’s World Cup, which was moved from China to the U.S. at the last minute because of the SARS outbreak.

But behind the scenes, the Eagles already knew what the building could be.

‘’When we built the stadium, we looked at it as, this stadium could host a World Cup,” Leonard said. “It’s even going back into the design and planning phases of the stadium, in 2000 or 1999, where we talked about removing the corners to accommodate a World Cup.”

Renovations coming

It would be a few years before those corners were actually removed from hard-surface spaces at field level. When they were filled in with grass, the soccer playing surface grew from 68 yards — below FIFA’s official minimum of 70 — to a comfortable 72. The first time that layout was showed off was in June 2010, when the Linc hosted the U.S. men’s soccer team’s World Cup send-off game. The U.S. was also bidding to host the 2022 men’s World Cup back then, a bid that Qatar beat in the end.

Now the Eagles’ home will be part of the biggest sports spectacle of all: the 2026 men’s World Cup in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. To start his preparations, Leonard went to Qatar in early November for workshops with grounds staff working on other major FIFA events of the recent past and future, including next year’s women’s World Cup in New Zealand and last month’s under-17 women’s World Cup in India.

“One thing that’s important for FIFA is that all pitch sizes at all 16 venues [in 2026] will be identical,” Leonard said. “And then we have to look at warmup areas. and we have to also look at areas behind the field boards for media. So there’s a lot that goes into it — it’s not just those field dimensions themselves.”

Although it’s a big help that no stadiums will have to be built from scratch here, there will still be a lot of work to do. Only one of the 16 host venues, Toronto’s BMO Field, currently has a field surface that’s big enough for World Cup standards — and that stadium is the only one whose seating capacity will be dramatically increased for the tournament.

Leonard said the Linc’s playing surface will be made, as he put it: “I shouldn’t say substantially larger, but we’re going to be wider and longer.”

And he said any renovations should be temporary and fixable by the start of the NFL season. That is undoubtedly a luxury compared to what other venues will have to go through.

The same, but different

Eight of the 16 World Cup venues have artificial turf. And regardless of the surface, stadiums from Kansas City’s historic Arrowhead Stadium to the multi-billion-dollar palaces in suburban Los Angeles and Dallas have fields that are too narrow for World Cup games.

At those stadiums and others, either some rows of prime seats will have to be removed or the playing field will have to be elevated off the stadium surface to be made wide enough.

While Leonard was in Qatar, he went to all eight of the stadiums that are hosting games at this year’s men’s World Cup.

“When you walked on each pitch, they were all almost identical,” he said. “That’s going to be the challenge: How do we make Mexico City similar to Philadelphia, similar to Miami, similar to Vancouver?”

He knows that in one way, it won’t be possible: The type of grass used in each stadium will vary because of the different climate conditions in each city. Leonard is good friends with John Sorochan, the University of Tennessee professor whom FIFA has hired to lead the research on growing grass to lay over artificial turf in 2026.

In fact, Leonard was in Qatar when The Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent interview with Sorochan was published, and he showed it to FIFA officials.

Culture change

Leonard is well aware of the years of investigations into Qatar’s alleged unethical labor practices in the construction of its stadiums, and everything else that has been built in the country for the World Cup: skyscrapers, a new airport, roads, a subway system, and more.

It won’t work that way here, for all kinds of reasons. Leonard said FIFA is well aware.

“I think FIFA understands the cultures, if you will, and I think they understand what the challenges are here,” he said. “The challenges are, hey, look, we’re mainly American football, and we’re in these NFL stadiums, we’ve got to retrofit them. But I also think that they understand that you’re dealing with a different level of service that we’re going to provide than what they may have been able to provide in Qatar.”

It likely won’t be all that much worse, of course. American sports teams and stadium managers know how to run big events, and make the organizers a whole lot of money. FIFA will surely bank more profits in 2026 than from any event in its history, and Philadelphia will be part of the show.

“We’re hoping here to give them a great experience, and make it a success and make it easy for them,” Leonard said.

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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