U.S. Soccer announced last week that it will bid for the 2018 World Cup. FIFA president Sepp Blatter gave the U.S. the green light Wednesday, confirming North America is in line to play host to the 2018 World Cup.
Blatter was talking in London, effectively warning the English to back off on their bid. But Blatter also was setting the stage for contingency plans. When Blatter speaks, you have to read between the lines. In this case, Blatter hinted at a possible 2014 World Cup in the U.S., keeping the 2018 door open for England and, possibly, Australia or China. In any case, the U.S. should start preparing for the World Cup to return.
This time, the lead-up to the Cup will be much different than in 1994. When FIFA awarded the '94 Cup to the U.S. on July 4, 1988, it set in motion forces that launched soccer into the nation's mainstream and turned the sport into a profitable business. But 20 years ago, when FIFA was considering what country would follow Italia '90, president Joao Havelange confronted enormous resistance when he proposed the U.S.
Havelange was an even more autocratic ruler than Blatter. Havelange knew that soccer would succeed at a high level in the U.S. and that the World Cup could be the launching pad; he had seen the crowds for NASL games and the '84 Olympics, in which soccer outdrew every other sport. Left to their own devices, the FIFA executive committee would not have seen the potential of soccer in the U.S. Havelange's power and vision forced the '94 World Cup on FIFA, and also on an unsuspecting U.S.
When the U.S. organizing committee began planning for '94, stadiums were a problem. Not that there weren't enough of them, but there were obstacles set up by competing sports leagues, plus logistical problems, often involving artificial turf playing surfaces. Veterans Stadium could not guarantee enough dates, so Philadelphia was out. The plan was to hold the '94 World Cup in 12 cities. But without Philadelphia, the dynamic changed, and the tournament was awarded to nine cities.
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Miami appeared to be a lock in '94 because Joe Robbie had built a stadium according to World Cup specifications; but it didn't happen, partly because of the reduced number of venues. At the time, Joe Robbie Stadium (now Dolphin Stadium), was the only stadium in the U.S. constructed with the World Cup in mind. Since '94, nearly every new stadium in the country meets requirements for international soccer. And there are a lot of new stadiums in the country.
This time around, nobody will have to explain the World Cup to the media or sponsors.
And, this time, there will surely be more than nine U.S. venues for the World Cup. The '94 Cup was the last to have 24 finalists; who knows how many there will be in 2014 or '18. There will be some interesting, if not cutthroat, dealings among prospective venues. We can look forward to a reasonable media buildup to the Cup.
That was not the case 13 years ago. Ticket sales were strong from the start for the '94 Cup, but the mainstream media were skeptical. As sales continued to be strong, the media reaction changed to apathy. A few weeks before the June 9, 1994, start of the World Cup, I met an angry West African at a Harvard Square newsstand; he could find little information on the Cup and said he felt like we were "living in a gulag."
Finally, in early June, just about everyone who mattered realized the World Cup was going to set attendance records. But, even then, the skepticism took the form of, "We know every stadium will be full, but who is going to go?'' implying only the marginalized, the minorities, would attend games. Not that that should have mattered, considering the amount of revenue they were going to generate.
Still, it was not difficult to find tickets for the '94 Cup. That dynamic, also, will change the next time the Cup is played in the U.S. Talk about scalper heaven. There will be 64 World Cup matches, 12 more than in '94, but there will not necessarily be many more seats available. More tickets will be in the hands of sponsors and those with access to luxury boxes. The Rose Bowl and its 100,000 capacity will not figure into the equation unless it is modernized. Ticket sales were strong leading up to '94, but this time there likely will be a buying frenzy from the start.
A few years ago, the laws of the game of soccer were a mystery in the U.S. When the World Cup returns, the most important law will be that of supply and demand.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.