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Across North America, police and public safety are bracing for the biggest sports event in history

Host cities for the FIFA Soccer World Cup 2026 like Atlanta are leveraging federal, state and local partnerships to strengthen riot control units, foster technology collaboration and implement joint intelligence gathering

Kenneth “Ken” DeSimone is used to taking on challenges. After all, the 35-year law enforcement veteran and retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and has worked in organized crime, intelligence and counter-terrorism units as a police officer.

What he finds particularly intriguing about the challenge soon to come to his country and his city is “the unknown,” says DeSimone, Chief of Police in Sandy Springs, the second largest city in metro Atlanta. He’s talking about the 2026 FIFA Soccer World Cup — expected to be the biggest sports event in history. “The question is, are we ready for whatever will be thrown at us? The expected and the unexpected,” he says with a thin smile.

Planning for a wide range of potential threats

For the first time, the Men’s World Cup — organized by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body — will be spread across three countries: the United States, Canada and Mexico. In June and July of 2026, 16 cities — including 11 in the U.S. — will host 104 matches, carried out by 48 teams over six weeks — an expanded format and the largest World Cup yet.

A study by the Boston Consulting Group estimates the global soccer games will generate a total of over $5 billion. Each host city could see between $90-$480 million in net benefit.

While the economic impact of hosting the World Cup is expected to be massive, so are the security challenges. With a little over two years to go, federal, state, regional and local public safety agencies, along with private sector and non-profit partners, have started planning for a wide range of potential threats — from public disorder caused by hooligans, violent soccer fans, to political unrest, terrorist attacks, active shooter events, mass casualty accidents and an explosion in street- and cyber-crime.

Atlanta will put on eight World Cup matches, including the semi-final. The city has hosted high-profile sporting events in the past, including the 1996 Summer Olympics, three Super Bowls, and the NCAA Final Four Men’s Basketball Championship.

“There’s a fire and a fanaticism in soccer fans that you don’t normally see in American sports.” — Scott Ashworth

While experience matters, Scott Ashworth warns against basing the safety and security planning mainly “on what we’ve done in the past.” The Atlanta-based security consultant and former police officer used to be director of security for Atlanta United, the city’s Major League Soccer team. The World Cup “is different,” he says. “There’s a fire and a fanaticism in soccer fans” — especially those from South America, Europe and parts of Asia — “that you don’t normally see in American sports.”

Felipe den Brok says hosting eight World Cup games is like hosting eight Super Bowls within a few weeks. As Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Preparedness for Atlanta, he’s in charge of coordinating the city’s public safety and security preparations and response. “The last thing we want to become is a case study,” he says.

Den Brok, who has extensive experience working for the FBI and in the private security sector, notes that with teams and fans, political leaders and business tycoons from across the world flocking to North America and Atlanta, there’s a chance that global conflicts could be imported — and played out right in the city’s stadium and streets.

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Felipe den Brok (right), Executive Director of Atlanta’s Emergency Preparedness Department, pictured here with his deputy Asher Morris, is in charge of coordinating the city’s public safety and security preparations for the FIFA World Cup.

Photo/Katja Ridderbusch

Five of Atlanta’s eight World Cup games will be in the group stage, with lineups announced in late 2025. The three games in the knockout rounds leave just a few days to prepare for potentially explosive match pairings — like Russia versus Poland or Ukraine, for example, or Brazil versus Argentina.

All matches will be played at Mercedes Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta, so the Atlanta Police Department (APD) has taken the lead in planning and coordinating the joint law enforcement response.

The goal is for people to come to Atlanta, enjoy the games and feel safe in the city, says Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum. “They will see a unified law enforcement front that is working behind the scenes, ready to act if something critical happens.” Ideally, people won’t notice that a threat even existed, he adds.

To make this happen, “we are leveraging the experience, talent, skill and expertise that we have in our department,” Schierbaum continues. Most importantly, “we are leveraging our long-standing relationships” with partners from the public and private sectors.

“They will see a unified law enforcement front that is working behind the scenes, ready to act if something critical happens.” — Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum

Partners include the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and Georgia State Patrol. Several Sheriff’s offices, as well as county and municipal police departments, are also involved because facilities supporting the tournament — hotels, hospitals, and training venues — are in their jurisdictions.

“Collaboration is key,” says den Brok. “There are no lines drawn to separate partners. We all operate in concentric and intersecting circles.”

Civil disturbance unit

This also means tapping into the specific expertise that partners have to offer. Like the Sandy Springs Police Department, with 150 full-time sworn officers.

Sandy Springs has a population of 110,000 and is located about 16 miles north of downtown Atlanta. The city is strategically well-positioned to handle much of the infrastructure and perimeter safety related to the World Cup. The Atlanta subway system, MARTA, operates three stops in Sandy Springs, with direct lines to Mercedes Benz Stadium and Hartfield Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest passenger hub. Several major hospitals are in Sandy Springs, as well as a number of consular offices and Fortune 500 companies.

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Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone (right), with Officer Nick Trujillo, makes sure the department’s public order unit is always ready to deploy.

Photo/Katja Ridderbusch

The city was founded in 2005 because of public safety, says DeSimone. “This gives us a lot of leeway with our equipment and training — and that’s why today, we have the assets to support Atlanta in preparations for the World Cup.”

In 2019, the department transformed its mobile field force into the Quick Response Force (QRF) — a public order team. The 40-officer unit, made up mainly of members from the patrol division, is cross-trained to respond to active shooter incidents and serve as a robust riot police force.

Sandy Springs’ QRF has long been working side-by-side with the Atlanta Police Department’s civil disturbance unit, last in 2023, during the violent protests against APD’s new Public Safety Training Center, dubbed “Cop City” by its opponents. Last fall, the unit de-escalated a pro-Palestinian rally in Sandy Springs, which has a substantial Jewish population.

QRF officers are equipped with fire retardant overalls, shoulder pads, shin guards, special helmets, and different types of shields and batons. They carry launchers to deploy pepper balls, tear gas and other crowd control irritants.

“It’s a strong show of force, and it’s meant to be intimidating,” says DeSimone — trim, short grey hair, crisp dark uniform — as he swiftly walks through the agency’s vehicle park, pointing to a truck and crew bus dedicated to the QRF.

There’s another reason Sandy Springs’ civil disturbance unit will be an important asset in Atlanta’s World Cup public safety toolbox: The unit is trained by Utah-based Survival Edge Tactical Systems, which employs former instructors from the Metropolitan Police Department in London.

The UK, like many European countries, has large, standing riot police units that deal with public disorder regularly, from unrest erupting over soccer matches to mass demonstrations.

DeSimone says he likes the European-style training approach to crowd control — “the way they employ their transportation; throw vans into the mix; how they use different tactics with long shields, short shields, round shields.” The instructors also use life Molotov cocktails during exercises, “which is something that U.S. police doesn’t typically do,” says DeSimone.


The Sandy Springs Police Department’s riot control unit — called Quick Response Force (QRF) — is trained by British instructors. Exercises often include the use of life Molotov cocktails.

Photo/Sandy Springs Police Department

Cross-cultural competence

Cross-cultural competence is key to the city’s preparation for the global soccer event, says den Brok. That’s why his office plans to closely involve Atlanta’s large diplomatic corps — there are 26 career consulates in the metro area — in the preparations.

Also, security teams and off-duty police officers working for Atlanta-area hospitals must brace themselves for diverse threat scenarios, says den Brok — from handling mass casualty events to dealing with rowdy soccer fans and entitled foreign dignitaries, neither familiar with the U.S. healthcare system and medical culture.

Many foreign visitors, including players, coaches, wealthy fans and politicians, may want to bring their own protective personnel, says security expert Ashworth. These private security teams pouring into the city will pose another potential threat.

“We need to ask: Who are some of these protectors?” says Ashworth.

Police officers and intelligence analysts must be trained to recognize the difference between credentialed private security and a gang of armed muscle; to communicate and coordinate with the legitimate and licensed security teams, and to contain and control the unofficial ones.

Monitoring threats with technology

Technology will play a critical role in monitoring and responding to security breaches and threats during the tournament. A region-wide public radio safety network should allow for seamless communication across jurisdictions. There will be coordinated plans for drone deployment and the capability to safely disable unauthorized drones. New and sophisticated weapons detection systems will facilitate a quicker flow of people through venue entrances.

“Because people idly standing around — that’s a huge target,” says Ashworth.

Another crucial technology piece, adds the security expert, are real time crime centers that gather intelligence from multiple sources — including video, radio, computer-aided dispatch and license plate reader recognition — and integrate it into one information ecosystem.

The next two years will offer ample opportunity to practice, assess, correct and finalize a complex security and contingency plan for the world’s biggest sports tournament, says den Brok. Different types of training events are built into the schedule, from tabletop exercises to courses about risk assessment, crowd management or human trafficking to large, scenario-based and hands-on emergency preparedness exercises that involve all law enforcement, public safety and critical infrastructure partners.

Also, running up to the World Cup, Atlanta will host two major sports events in 2025. The College Football Playoff National Championship takes place at Mercedes Benz Stadium in January, and several games in FIFA’s Club World Cup, an international club soccer competition, follow in the summer.

“There, we will see the most hardcore, tribal soccer fans,” says den Brok.

After each event, there’s going to be a thorough analysis and implementation of critical lessons learned, says den Brok. “It’s like building blocks, leading all the way up to the FIFA World Cup in 2026.”

Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone is convinced Atlanta will be ready by then. “Because there’s no better training than actual operations,” he says. Even — and especially — when the biggest challenge is the unknown.

Katja Ridderbusch is an award-winning print, radio and online journalist based in Atlanta. She reports on health care, criminal justice and law enforcement topics. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Time, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Kaiser Health News and more.