The World Cup begins this week in the sport's final frontier
Twelve-year-old Jason Perkins only started playing soccer two months ago. He hadn’t deliberately avoided the game—there simply was no opportunity to play near Robert Taylor Homes, the dilapidated inner-city public housing project in Chicago where he lives. But that changed this spring when Atlanta teacher Carolyn McKenzie exported her four-year-old introductory program, Soccer in the Streets, to the Windy City. Now, Perkins and several dozen other public-housing kids aged 5 to 12 spend Saturday mornings at the local Boys and Girls Club gymnasium working on the basics of kicking, heading and passing the ball. Program director Geoffrey Layne says that while “some of the kids try to bounce the ball like a basketball,” the sport has a good chance of taking hold in projects such as Robert Taylor. Like basketball, kids only need running shoes and a ball to get started. ‘When they graduate from our program and get their uniforms—the shirts, shorts, socks and shoes—that’s when they will realize that they are players,” Layne says. “Right now, they are just playing around.”
The same optimism that fuels Soccer in the Streets is what brought America the World Cup—a month-long soccer marathon starting at Chicago’s Soldier Field this week. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world governing body of the sport that only North Americans call soccer, granted the 1994 event to the United States on July 4, 1988, in the hope that the game could conquer its final, and potentially most lucrative, frontier. For all its fanatical following worldwide—two billion people, more than a third of the world’s population, are expected to watch the World Cup final on July 17—soccer has remained on the periphery of the U.S. sports scene. The
North American Soccer League, § the continent’s only top-level o league ever, folded a decade g ago. But FIFA and the U.S. Soc-1 cer Federation were willing to g bet that the Cup’s overwhelmo ing financial clout would get coru porate America’s attention. And like a fastfood giant with designs on China, they reasoned that if Americans were fed a nonstop diet of soccer for a month, they might begin to like it.
To win that interest, however, the World Cup must overcome action-loving America’s innate aversion to a low-scoring, deliberately paced sport. The tournament certainly has star power: Italy’s scoring sensation Roberto Baggio, Brazil’s electrifying Romario and Nigeria’s speedy Rashidi Yekini, among others, will be fervently pursuing soccer’s Holy Grail—the solid gold, 14-inch-high World Cup trophy. A good showing by the host team would also help. Longterm, the U.S. soccer community has pinned its hopes on the planned start next spring of Major League Soccer, a new professional league. But the short-term goal is for the World Cup to finally get Americans talking about soccer. “I think this is the last chance,” says U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos. “This is it.”
For the world at large, Cup mania dates back to 1930. FIFA staged the inaugural event that year in Uruguay, with only 13 countries taking part and the host country winning. But how the fever has spread. In 1969, rioting by rival fans over a series of World Cup qualifying games incited El Salvador and Honduras into armed conflict, a four-day engagement known simply as the Soccer War. In 1982, after favored Brazil was upset by Italy in the semifinals in Spain, three people in Rio de Janeiro committed suicide and five more simply collapsed and died on the spot. For the 1994 event, more than 140 nations began qualifying play in their geographical zones nearly three years ago, and the elite, 24-team
field was not finalized until last November; Canada was knocked out of the competition by Mexico and Australia.
England, too, was eliminated, much to the relief of U.S. security officials, who will not have to contend with that country’s grossest national product, the violence-prone fans known as “hooligans.” All that is news, however, to many Americans. Of U.S. residents polled two weeks before the world’s largest single sporting event, two-thirds could not identify which country was hosting the Cup this year. “I think we’re making incredible progress,” World Cup chairman Alan Rothenberg said optimistically, noting that the level of awareness was worse in the previous poll. A tune-up game last week in San Diego between Honduras and Brazil, the sport’s most exciting team, drew only 21,322 fans to cavernous Jack Murphy Stadium. By comparison, nearly 52,000 saw Brazil play Canada in Edmonton a few days earlier. Although all Cup games will be televised in the United States, only 11 will appear on a major network, ABC. The remaining 41 will be shown on the cable sports channel ESPN. (All 52 games will be shown in Canada on The Sports Network.)
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Still, having been passed the ball, America seems set to score. Poll results aside, there is undeniably grassroots interest in the game. Not only the United States a nation of immigrants, many of them recent enough to know a comer kick from a throw-in, but kids are also playing: 12 million of them, up 77 per cent in the last decade, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation. And Americans love the Big Event—especially one expected to inject more than
$5.5 billion into the U.S. economy. Already, 3.5 million tickets—the highest-ever World Cup total—have been sold to games in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, New York, Washington, Orlando, Fla., Dallas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some of those tickets, of course, went to well-heeled corporate sponsors, whose advertising will be beamed around the globe. Organizers say that a cumulative audience of more than 30 billion will watch all or part of the 52-game schedule. To reach that audience, 19 companies, including Budweiser, Canon, Coca-Cola and General Motors, paid a total of more than $480 million just to put their logos on field-side signs at the nine World Cup sites. World Cup USA94, the soccer federation’s organizing arm, anticipates a surplus of up to $34 million from total revenues of $1.5 billion. That total includes $378 million from the sale of nonU.S. television rights, $32 million for domestic TV rights, $288 million for tickets and $116 million from souvenir sales. Also benefiting will be the U.S. soccer industry, which sells about $1 billion worth of equipment annually and will undoubtedly sell more as youth interest increases. “There already has been an increase in the level of sophistication,” said Sandy Briggs, executive director of the Soccer Industry Council of America. “It used to be that kids played in shorts and sneakers. Now they want the whole outfit.”
The apostles of soccer hope the World Cup will leave behind new converts to the game as a spectator sport. The sheer weight of television coverage will likely breed a legion of Americans who know the difference between a striker and a sweeper, who understand why some Brazilians only need one name, and who can explain the finer points of the offside rule. “The kids who are playing already know who the big international stars are,” says Kit Simeone, operations manager for Dallas-based U.S. Youth Soccer. “What’s also happening is that the U.S. players are also becoming more visible, and that’s great for the kids. As with any sport, they like their heroes.” The problem for American professionals is that, since the demise of the North American Soccer League, they have had to go to Europe to find work. Lesser players were left to play indoor soccer or in the semi-pro American Professional Soccer League. In their bid to host the ’94 Cup, U.S. organizers promised to create Major League Soccer, a new U.S. first-division league, by 1992. That birth date was eventually revised to April, 1995. “We didn’t want to force something when we weren’t ready,” federation spokesman Tom Lange says. ‘We think that the World Cup will provide the impetus to propel Major League Soccer.”
Major League Soccer is designed to avoid the NASL’s mistakes. The former league filled its rosters with foreigners—marginal players and aging stars like Brazil’s Pelé and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer—leaving only a few spots for homegrown talent. The new league, by contrast, will be made up mostly of American players, with only a few imports. As well, the league structure is designed to put all teams on equal financial footing to avoid the disparities between large and small markets that plagued the old league. Officials say that, to start, the asyet unnamed franchises will all be in the United States—but the league may eventually cast its gaze northward. “Some people say that they don’t want Canadian cities in the league,” says Bob Lenarduzzi, the Canadian team coach. “But there are not enough good soccer markets in North America for them to ignore Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton.”
As for player development, soccer has been popular in some U.S. suburbs for decades. But long-term prospects may improve dramatically as the game spreads. Soccer in the Streets, for instance, has tapped a rich vein of athletic ability in the inner city, where basketball is king. ‘The amazing thing is the talent that they have got,” Soccer in the Streets’ Layne says of his Chicago participants. “Teach them something once and they can do it.” The kids learn more than just skills, he says. “In soccer, every time you have the ball, you become the quarterback, the one who makes the decisions,” he says. “Every moment that you have the ball, you are important.” That is especially true of young Perkins, who was chosen to represent youth soccer in the opening ceremonies, and will present the game ball to U.S. President Bill Clinton immediately prior to the kickoff of the first World Cup game in Chicago on June 17. “I don’t think that what is about to happen to him has sunk in yet,” Layne says of Perkins. On the eve of the world’s biggest sports event, the same might be said of all Americans. □
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