United States bid offers FIFA safe bet for success

MIAMI - Nothing illustrates the growth of soccer in the United States better than the realisation that hosting the 2022 World Cup there is now regarded as a safe option for FIFA, compared to 1994 when it was considered a risk.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Thu 25 Nov 2010, 10:23 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 4:33 AM

When FIFA awarded those finals to the United States in 1988, many observers felt world soccer’s governing body were taking a major risk in a country with little love for the game.

In some ways they were right because that World Cup was played out in a bubble.

There was interest in games in and around stadiums, but a short distance away there was little evidence that the World Cup was taking place. Few bars showed matches on television and the “street theatre” that traditionally accompanies the World Cup was missing.

Sixteen years later though, soccer has largely taken root and remarkably the US’s strong point as a candidate this time is that it would be a safe option as a country that has finally “found” the game.

Former President Bill Clinton is honorary chairman of the bid and if he were to adapt one of his old slogans to capture its strength it would surely be: “It’s the stadiums, stupid”.

Unlike most countries bidding to hold the world’s biggest sporting event, the US needs to do virtually nothing to have its stadiums ready to host large crowds in modern comfort.

Newly-built stadiums in Dallas and New York will not be quite as shiny in 12 years’ time but they will certainly, along with other modern National Football League (NFL) venues, be more than ready for a World Cup.

The major U.S. cities that are competing to be host cities — back in 1994 they did not compete but had to be persuaded to volunteer — are already geared up for big events.

They have the hotels and the services that fans, who will be on holiday as well as supporting their teams, have come to expect.

Record numbers

Given the size of American stadiums, with 70,000 capacities the norm in the NFL, the U.S. is confident it could beat its own record number of spectators for a World Cup which was set with 3.56 million fans in 1994.

Some of those voting at FIFA may be concerned, however, about the lack of public transport facilities in some venues such as Miami and the fact that NFL venues such as New York and Seattle would need to replace their artificial turf with natural grass.

While organisers are confident those issues can be easily dealt with — New York’s Meadowlands Stadium switched to grass for the recent friendly with Brazil and Miami has handled mass transportation many times for Super Bowls — the key battle in the bid process will probably be convincing FIFA voters that North Americans deserve the World Cup.

Despite the growth of the game since 1994, with the progress of the national team, the creation and development of Major League Soccer (MLS), huge crowds for international friendlies and healthy television audiences for foreign matches, the sport remains behind America’s traditional games — baseball, basketball and American football.

“I think some of the international community underestimates the passion for the game in the United States,” bid chairman Sunil Gulati told reporters recently.

“They are surprised that Americans were the number one ticket buyers for the (2010) World Cup.

“They are surprised that you couldn’t get into bars in a lot of major cities at 10 a.m. to watch World Cup games. They’re surprised that the TV rights for the World Cup were the single largest in the world.”

In the overseas curiosity about the status of soccer in the United States lies another reason why the Americans have a real chance of winning with their bid.

The fact that the game has yet to truly gain traction with an affluent mass market in a country of 310 million has long fascinated football people and FIFA may be tempted to search again for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Facts and figures relating to the United States bid to stage the 2022 World Cup finals:

Why are they bidding?

Soccer’s popularity is growing rapidly in the US and officials believe that, just as hosting the tournament in 1994 brought real results for the development of the game in the country, another successful World Cup could push the sport to the next level.

Best footballing moment: Reaching the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup.

Best-known footballers: Landon Donovan is the country’s all-time top scorer and has played in Germany and England. Fulham forward Clint Dempsey has earned respect for his gutsy displays in the Premier League. Tim Howard is the latest in a long line of excellent American goalkeepers who have played abroad. Claudio Reyna, Alexi Lalas and Brian McBride are the best-remembered players from previous generations.

Previous World Cup performances: Nine finals appearances. A third-place finish in the first World Cup, in 1930, and a victory over England in 1950 were the two early highlights. Have taken part in last six finals, reaching the last eight in 2002.

Main stadium for 2022: With such an abundance of large, modern venues to choose from, the U.S. does not need a showpiece stadium. The New Meadowlands near New York City is likely to be the suggested home for the final but the extraordinary new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas is more impressive.

Best points: The US has enough quality venues, ready right now, to host two World Cups. With plentiful hotels and a track record in organising big events — including the 1994 World Cup, which is still the best-attended World Cup ever — the Americans are selling their bid as risk-free.

Possible drawbacks: Football to most Americans still means the gridiron game and despite the progress of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the popularity of foreign clubs and competitions, the country as a whole has not truly embraced the sport. For some in FIFA that lack of emotional involvement from the population could count heavily against the American bid.

Legacy point: A huge market with potentially lucrative earnings potential for FIFA and the game as a whole, the US remains to be conquered for football and a World Cup could go a long way to further cementing the game’s place in American life.

What they say: Former US. President Bill Clinton, honorary chairman of the USA Bid Committee: “In my travels around the world — from the dirt fields of Lusaka, Zambia, to playgrounds in schools across America — I’ve seen the transformative power soccer has to bring people together and transform lives on and off the field. I continue to be impressed with FIFA’s work to promote the game as an agent for positive social change, and I’m proud to represent the United States in our bid to bring the World Cup tournament back to American soil, allowing us to inspire action and cooperation on an even greater scale.”

Bookies’ odds: London bookmakers William Hill rate the U.S. third favourites at 7-2 behind Qatar and Australia.

Population: 310.7 million

Number of clubs: More than 6,000 youth clubs. The top-flight MLS will have 19 clubs by 2012, with 16 of them from the United States and three from Canada. The second-division North American Soccer League and lower-division United Soccer Leagues organise professional club football across the country while there is a traditional University competition.

FIFA World Ranking (Nov. 2010): 18th

Trivia fact: While Americans use the moniker ‘soccer’ to distinguish the game from American football, the term originated in the 19th century and is credited to England captain Charles Wreford-Brown as a contraction of Association Football — to distinguish it from Rugby Football or “rugger”.

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