Brazilian star Ronaldinho practices at the Georgia Dome the day before his team, A.C. Milan of Italy, faces Club America of Mexico City in an exhibition game in Atlanta. The event drew more than 50,000 spectators.

As Atlanta vies for a leading role in the U.S. bid for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup, a local sports marketing consultancy is aiding Russia‘s efforts to host soccer’s premier global tournament.

Helios Partners announced this week that it will coordinate Russia’s marketing efforts and put together the country’s final bid for the 2018 and 2022 events. Countries must submit one bid making their case for both years. Atlanta is one of 27 cities still being considered as part of the U.S. bid.

Terrence Burns, Helios’ president, said his company made a pitch to the U.S. Soccer Federation‘s bid committee, but the two sides couldn’t come to terms despite friendly negotiations.

Russia turned out to be a better fit. On the surface, that may seem like an ironic turn for a Buckhead-based company run by executives who owe their sports marketing roots to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. Read about Helios’ history, China activities and business model.

But considering the company’s recent successes in the sprawling Eurasian country, the deal makes sense. With Helios submitting the bid to the International Olympic Committee in 2007, the Russian city of Sochi won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

“We’ve got a good track record in Russia. They trust us, so we’re just getting started,” Mr. Burns told GlobalAtlanta.

As far as competing with Atlanta, Mr. Burns said that might not be an issue. He said that “common knowledge” in the sports world says that although countries bid for both years at once, Russia and the U.K. are the real prospects for 2018, while the U.S. will battle Australia and, to a lesser extent, Qatar, for 2022.

Countries vying for 2018 and 2022 include Australia, Japan, Mexico, Russia and the U.K., plus joint bids from Belgium-Netherlands and Spain-Portugal. Indonesia, Qatar and South Korea have applied only for the 2022 finals.

Still, anything can happen, and as part of the U.S. bid, Atlanta is technically Russia’s rival. Both have compelling stories, Mr. Burns said.

“Russia has never hosted the World Cup, so it would be historic in that sense,” he said. “It’s a crossroads. It’s a new country yet an ancient nation, and it’s an opportunity to help that country take a step forward just like the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.”

Atlanta also has its charms, Mr. Burns said.

“Atlanta has an Olympic history,” he said. “It’s a city that knows how to host a big event. It’s got a large enough population that will support an event from a ticketing, merchandising perspective.”

Thanks in part to recent exhibition games at the Georgia Dome featuring well-known teams from Europe and the Americas, Atlanta’s soccer consciousness is also growing, said Scott Moran, international attorney with Berman Fink Van Horn P.C.

In June, the Mexican and Venezuelan national teams took the field in Atlanta. A contest in July between A.C. Milan of Italy and Club America of Mexico City brought some 50,000 fans to the Dome to catch a glimpse of international stars like A.C. Milan’s Brazilian sensation Ronaldinho.

“I think the two games this past summer were great for Atlanta soccer both in general and also for our chances at the World Cup,” said Mr. Moran, who’s also president of the Atlanta Futbol Project, a group leading the city’s efforts to host the World Cup and bring a Major League Soccer franchise here. “They were great, world-class events that put Atlanta squarely on the world’s soccer map.”

In addition to having hosted the Super Bowl (2000), two Final Four tournaments (2002 and 2007), and all-star games for Major League Baseball (2000), the NBA (2003) and NHL (2008), population trends are also on Atlanta’s side, Mr. Burns said.

“I think the demographics have changed in Atlanta in the last 20 years. There are many more Hispanics here that love futbol much more than the classic American ‘big three’ sports. I think football [soccer], if it’s at a high enough level, can work in America,” he added.

Atlanta’s sporting history demonstrates that it meets the “table stakes” of hosting the world’s largest soccer tournament, things like ample telecommunications, accommodations, security and transportation, he said.

With Sochi, Russia passed the test as well.

“They’ve been through this pretty rigorous process once at the national level and obviously were successful,” Mr. Burns said.

Like the Olympics, the final decision between the U.S., Russia and other competitors will likely come down to more intangible factors.

Mr. Burns, who worked in marketing for Delta Air Lines Inc. from 1981-96, got his start in sports when he was tapped to head up the airline’s Olympic sponsorship in Atlanta. Working with various companies since then, he’s become an expert on the bidding processes for the Olympics and other global sporting events.

The World Cup process is unique because countries are bidding for two separate years at the same time, and unlike the Olympics, where one city makes up the entire pitch, each country must include a portfolio of cities that have the right mix of capacity and character.

Russia will likely include eight or nine cities in its bid, Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Moran said Atlanta is focused on making the next cut. The U.S. bid committee is expected to trim its list to 18 by the end of this year., he said. The most recent cuts were made on Aug. 20, leaving 27 cities with 32 potential stadiums averaging 74,000 seats. The Georgia Dome has a capacity of 71,250.

The U.S. Soccer Federation will submit its bid to FIFA by next May. FIFA will issue its final decision by December 2010. The 2010 World Cup will be held in South Africa. In 2014, the event will move to Brazil

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...