Memo to FIFA -- soccer is big in U.S.

September, 3, 2010
09/03/10
9:31
AM ET

NEW YORK -- In the gold-plated St. Regis Hotel just off 5th Avenue, a group of healthy-looking men in fancy suits started to make their case for holding a World Cup in the United States once more.

In the marble hallway hung several images of how the bid committee envisions the 2018 or (more likely) the 2022 World Cup. In them, soccer stadiums overflowed, as did fan viewing areas. While they didn't come right out and say it, the underlying message was clear: Hold the World Cup here, and scads of people will come. Hold the World Cup here, in other words, because the U.S. is a soccer-mad country.

The purpose was to convince those not yet convinced that America is indeed soccer territory.

Even after all the success and growth of soccer in the U.S., it's amazing FIFA still needs convincing, isn't it?

As the U.S. hopes to land the World Cup once more, after successfully putting it on in 1994, that is the most pressing challenge to overcome. Airports there are plenty of. Hotels are among the best in the world. The stadiums borrowed from college and pro football are more than adequate and bountiful in number. But the people that will fill them, they remain under intense scrutiny from FIFA. They are the lynch-pin to the success of the American bid.

"Some of the international community underestimates the passion for the game in the United States," said U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, after having welcomed the head of the FIFA inspection delegation, Chilean Football Federation boss Harold Mayne-Nicholls, and subsequently sent him on his way to inspect Red Bull Arena and the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey.

FIFA's all-important Executive Committee, which will anoint the World Cups on Dec. 2, isn't much aware of the prodigious progress soccer in the U.S. has made since drawing a record number of fans to the 1994 edition.

"When we start talking about the landscape in the U.S. they're surprised by it," said Gulati. "They're surprised that we've got 16 teams and growing in MLS. They're surprised that Americans were the number one ticket-buyers for the [2010] World Cup. They're surprised that you couldn't get into a lot of bars in major cities across the countries at 10 o'clock in the morning to watch World Cup games. They're surprised that the [American] TV rights-bid for the World Cup was the single largest in the world."

This type of surprise is not good. It implies ignorance about the state of soccer in a country where the World Cup is becoming one of the most highly anticipated sporting events. Don't be surprised, then, if the U.S. bid focuses mostly on proving that the World Cup is big here. "I think it's important that we continue to get that message across," said Gulati, who added that the U.S. bid had hoped to take the inspection delegation to an MLS game in Seattle, where the second-year Sounders are drawing well north of 30,000 frenzied fans per game.

The thinking in awarding the U.S. the '94 tournament had been to conquer soccer's last frontier, North America, stipulating as a condition that a new professional league would emerge (and hence was born Major League Soccer in 1996). The 2018/2022 bid hopes to latch onto that investment by selling a second World Cup as the clincher that will push soccer here into the big-time once and for all.

"The analogy we use is to you look at this as a 50-year time horizon, what we've done since 1984 -- and that's what I always use as a benchmark because of the Olympic Games [in Los Angeles], which gave FIFA the faith in American spectators' feeling for the sport to give us 1994," said Gulati. "We're roughly halfway on it. It's 25 years in. And look what we've done in the first half. We finally got what we've [wanted] for 25 years -- watercooler-talk. People that didn't normally tune in were talking about the World Cup."

Imagine what we could do in the second half," Gulati continued, "if American television and commercial partnerships treat [a U.S.-based] World Cup the same way they might treat the Olympics, for example, and more Americans start treating and viewing the World Cup like they do the NFL. Convincing the world that we're half-way there and beyond is a big challenge."

The message is clear, Americans. Take the day off from work, take your kids out of school, change into your soccer cleats and find a field to play on -- ideally where the FIFA inspection delegation can see you.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.

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