December 2010

Qatar. Americans Should Remember 1994 and Get Over It.

At the risk of sounding like American-hating, socialist-sympathizing, Hispanic-espousing, nothing-new-to-be-saying Paul Gardner…it’s time for U.S. soccer fans to get over it.

This decision that FIFA made on the 2022 World Cup: holding the World Cup in a country that could not qualify on its own, a country without a world-class player from inside its borders, a country whose bid book was wrapped in money.

That was the U.S. when FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup.  The decision—coming on July 4th 1988—brought criticism and skepticism from the soccer world.

The U.S. had not qualified for a World Cup in 30 years; its national professional league had folded; and the best Americans were playing in college, not Europe.

The criticism came from the soccer establishment.  Their newspapers said the tournament had been sold to corporate America, that stadiums would be empty, that transportation would be difficult, that the summer heat would devastate the players.  (The U.S. media even got involved, warning people of the riots that would accompany the World Cup.)

Italy’s American carpet-bagger Giorgio Chinaglia said that soccer would never take hold in the U.S. and encouraged FIFA to reconsider its decision.  French newspapers said that the U.S. should have to qualify to play in the tournament it would host.

There were stadium issues.  The Detroit venue would be indoors with air conditioning, a first for a World Cup game.  Its surface and others stadiums’ artificial surfaces would have to be replaced with new grass.

In all the U.S. offered a risk with an enormous upside. That should sound familiar.

In all the U.S. offered a risk with a big payoff.  The lack of soccer offered FIFA extreme growth potential for the game.  The decision paid off while critics had to eat their words.

The U.S. did subsequently qualify for the 1990 World Cup, the one held before its automatic berth.  For the 1994 World Cup, England failed to qualify, as did France, just four years before its automatic berth.  Italy limped into the second round and drove its fans away after that.

To this day, that risky World Cup is still the most successful even though the tournament has grown from 24 to 32 teams.  An average of 69,000 people attended each game for a total of 3.6 million.

The payoff encouraged FIFA to take the tournament to Asia in 2002, Africa in 2010, Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.  The risks keep paying off, risks that began with the decision to hold the 1994 tournament in the U.S.

By extension that decision prevented us from hosting the 2022 tournament.  The 1994 World Cup was the catalyst for soccer to take off in the U.S.  And now we are a soccer nation.  We are established.

Our women have won multiple championships.  Our youth have won medals.  Our men have qualified for the last six World Cups, have beaten world powers, and played an international final.   It’s where we had hoped to be.  We are not edgy or unknown any longer.

Qatar is.

Jamie Clary is the author of The First American Soccer Trivia Book which can be purchased here. He can be reached via Twitter at @soccerprofessor.

Jamie Clary