New Jersey, home of The Sopranos, Bruce Springsteen, Anthony Bourdain, stunning coastlines, charming towns and salt water taffy, is among the most ethnically diverse places anywhere in the world. So what better place to host the biggest sporting event on earth, right?
When soccer’s governing body Fifa announced the 2026 World Cup Final hosting rights to the Garden State over more fancied rivals Dallas and Los Angeles, the internet let out a collective groan of disbelief.
To be fair to New Jerseyians, the widespread derision was largely directed at MetLife Stadium, a ground unloved by sports fans and concertgoers alike for its unreliable public transport links and less-than-glamorous location.
The East Rutherford stadium is situated next to a marshland that was a dumping ground for toxic chemicals for decades, amongst factories, endless concrete car parks and America’s second largest mall.
“We may be 896 days out, but if you are reading this, your NJ Transit train departing the World Cup final at MetLife is *already* delayed,” journalist Ella Brockway wrote in a tongue-in-cheek post on X/Twitter.
Athletes aren’t thrilled about the stadium, either. MetLife is home to two struggling NFL sides, the New York Giants and New York Jets, and seventeen NFL players have suffered season-ending injuries in the past three years on its artificial turf.
Those trademark knee-sliding celebrations should be safe to pull off, though, as the pitch will be replaced with grass in time for the big show.
Even Fifa appeared to get in on tormenting New Jersey as it designated the host city as “New York New Jersey”, giving top billing to the state’s flashier, at-times antagonistic neighbor.
For the nine million people who call New Jersey home, the taunts are nothing they haven’t heard before.
“Whenever I tell people I’m from Jersey, they all give me that look: awww, Jersey,” Ibrahim Saeed, a 25-year-old student told The Independent while shopping at East Rutherford’s American Dream mall this week. “I don’t know why New Yorkers always look down on Jersey. I guess the first thing they think about is Jersey Shore.”
When the MTV reality TV show debuted in 2009, it introduced Snooki, The Situation and the “hottest, tannest, craziest Guidos,” to the world.
Rio, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires…. and East Rutherford New Jersey pic.twitter.com/rSqw5cmS5R
— Nico (@nicodegallo) February 4, 2024
Fifteen years later, the stereotype unfairly lingers, Mr Ibrahim says: “Jersey has a lot to offer, other than beaches. We have a lot of culture.”
Forget sloppy joes and hot dogs; Mr Ibrahim recommends visitors check out the shawarmas and mixed grills in Paterson’s Little Palestine neighbourhood. He hopes East Rutherford and its surrounds will be able to cash in as tens of thousands of soccer-mad fans pour in.
Bruce Armistead, 22, was born in California but has lived most of his life in New Jersey, and says residents of his adopted home take great pride in their home state.
“New Jersey is not the flashiest place perhaps, but this is the most diverse place in the world,” he told The Independent. “It’s actually the perfect place to hold the World Cup because you do have all those different cultural influences. Even though it might not seem like the best place to hold a World Cup, you’re definitely going to get a lot of love from the locals.”
Mr Armistead says “Jersey pride” is all about being authentic.
“Jersey is about dropping the facade. Even if something might come off a little abrasive, we’re all about being authentic here,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s like telling people, ‘Hey, screw you, I’m walking here’. Other times it’s about being kind.”
Fifa were reportedly dazzled by the allure of holding the final next to the Big Apple, in spite of AT&T Stadium in Dallas and Los Angeles’ futuristic SoFi Stadium being far superior grounds.
The Dallas bid talked up its state-of-the-art AT&T Stadium, featuring giant high-definition video screens and a climate-controlled retractable roof.
The final will be played at the height of summer, when temperatures in East Rutherford can get to the high 30s Centigrade (90s Fahrenheit) with stifling humidity — not to mention the unseemly stench from the polluted marshlands.
For most World Cup fans, their only experience of East Rutherford will be catching a train, bus or taxi from New York City on game day. New Jersey Transit trains get a bad rap for being perennially delayed, especially during big events, and for the tattered state of its carriages.
“The minute [European fans] step on the New Jersey transit they’re going to be traumatized,” Rohit Jasud, an actor living in New York City, told The Independent.
Mr Armistead recommends renting a car. “You will get stuck in traffic, but at least you don’t have to deal with public transport.”
The train departs Penn Station as it heads under the Hudson River and out into the industrial wasteland of Secaucus, past factories and vast parking lots. From Secaucus Junction, a quick transfer will get you to MetLife.
There are also busses direct to the ground from Port Authority Bus Terminal, which has a reputation as a “derelict’s haven”.
MetLife has shown it can live up to the grand occasion. It hosted the Super Bowl in 2014, and is a regular tour stop for biggest touring artists such as Beyonce, Taylor Swift and The Weeknd.
The climax to soccer’s quadrennial carnival of sport is likely dwarf anything that it has seen before. And come July 29, 2026, whatever name Fifa has clumsily crowbarred onto the hosting rights, “Jersey pride” will ensure that no one is in doubt which state the stadium is in.