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Apr 30, 2009

U.S. World Cup bid gains traction as Obama lends support

We've got Beckham. They've got Obama. Say goodbye to our World Cup bid and make plans to visit the U.S. in 2018.

That was The Times of London's take on President Barack Obama's support for the 2018/22 World Cup Bid Committee in the U.S.

The USA Bid Committee is not calling the race over, yet. With Obama behind the bid, though, the U.S. surely has taken a huge step toward the goal. And, it wasn't just that Obama sent a letter in April supporting the U.S. to FIFA secretary general Sepp Blatter. Obama actually composed the letter himself. He did not pawn it off to speechwriters, or even press secretary Robert Gibbs, once a backup goalkeeper at North Carolina State University. Obama made it perfectly clear those were his words during an interview with Univision's Jorge Ramos.

And the epistle surely has Obama's stamp.

Obama's sporting affiliations mostly regard basketball. But Obama did play soccer as a youngster in Jakarta, Indonesia, and has attended West Ham United games with London relatives. He was able to tie together those experiences in Indonesia with those of being a soccer pop.

No one is certain whether Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympic Games, also backed by Obama, is a positive for the World Cup. Nor does anyone know if the overwhelming amount of stadia and infrastructure in the U.S. will be a factor. Everyone knows the U.S. is capable of playing host to the World Cup, and that the potential for audiences and sponsorships is enormous. But that does not necessarily mean FIFA will approve. FIFA needs only 12 adequate stadia to hold the party, and those can be found in many countries.

"The letter from the president was picked up nationally and internationally," said David Downs, executive director of the USA Bid Committee. "With all the things he's facing in the current state of affairs, to take the time to do that means a lot. In general, we were seeking some show of support, but this letter was so wonderfully written."

The bid committee, which must submit paperwork to FIFA by May 14, received positive replies from 58 U.S. stadia regarding playing host to the World Cup in 2018 or 2022 (FIFA will announce the two host countries in December 2010).

The sheer number of qualified stadia indicates how the sporting landscape has changed in the U.S. since the early 1990s. After the U.S. was awarded the '94 World Cup, on July 4, 1988, the bid committee received positive responses from 18 stadia. But many of those stadia were not serious contenders, due to several factors. Veterans Stadium, for example, was Philadelphia's best hope -- but it had artificial turf and there were questions about competing dates with Major League Baseball. Eventually, it was determined there too many obstacles, and Philadelphia was ruled out.

In this bid process, just the opposite is occurring -- obstacles are being cleared out long in advance. Philadelphia certainly learned a lesson -- Lincoln Financial Field is an example of a stadium built with playing host to the World Cup in mind.

In 1994, apathy, doubts and resistance from competing activities helped limit the World Cup to nine venues, instead of the desired 12. The viability of the event was questioned up until Diana Ross' miskick signaled the start at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Administrators, politicians and the media are now aware of the magnitude of the World Cup. Bidding to play host to the event is a no-brainer. College football stadia have considered jackhammering out stands to accommodate games, knowing they can patch things back together -- the University of Georgia uprooted the hedges for the '96 Olympics, the Bulldogs barely noticing the difference once the circus left town.

"A lot fewer people at that time [1994] appreciated what the World Cup was all about," USA Bid Committee chairman Sunil Gulati said. "The magnitude of the event has clearly changed and the sport has grown in a lot of different ways. We find we don't have to explain to mayors what it is."

The USA Bid Committee is proposing to break attendance records set in '94, when 52 matches attracted an average of 68,991 spectators. Bid committee types say playing host to a World Cup game is similar to a Super Bowl, and they have 64 of them to be played in a month. It's not an exaggeration, in terms of world-wide television viewing numbers and exposure. World Cup games figure into the history of countries, and matches enter the collective consciousness of the world.

Obama reflects this in his letter to Blatter:

"As a child, I played soccer on a dirt road in Jakarta, and the game brought the children of my neighborhood together. As a father, I saw that same spirit of unity alive on the fields and sidelines of my own daughters' soccer games in Chicago. Soccer is truly the world's sport and the World Cup promotes camaraderie and friendly competition across the globe. That is why this bid is about much more than a game. It is about the United States of America inviting the world to gather all across our great country in celebration of our common hopes and dreams."

Obama's words, certainly. And there are kids like him in Jakarta and Chicago right now emulating the moves of popular soccer players.

Indonesia is making a play for 2018. Other competition is coming from Australia, Belgium/Netherlands, England, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Portugal/Spain, Qatar, South Korea.

None can make a statement equivalent to one by the U.S.

Prime minister Gordon Brown appointed Becks as England's representative for the bid. Obama appointed himself.

Obama might not be able to bend the ball but he can bend opinions as no other head of state can.

The U.S. gained the '94 World Cup mostly because of the sheer force of Joao Havelange's willpower. Few people believed in the U.S. as a potential World Cup host in the '80s, and it was either ignored or resisted institutionally. Havelange, though, had witnessed the extraordinary crowds for 1984 Olympics soccer and was certain the World Cup could succeed in the U.S. The North American Soccer League had also provided evidence of the appetite of the public for high-level soccer, and former NASL executives such as Phil Woosnam were at the forefront of the '94 bid.

But they were mostly voices in the wilderness, Havelange's loud roar carrying the day.

In 1987, Havelange met with President Ronald Reagan, who supported the bid. President George H.W. Bush attended several games in '94. But President Bill Clinton sent Al Gore to present the trophy to Brazil in Pasadena.

Obama will be out of office by the time the 2018 World Cup kicks off. But, if the U.S. plays host to the event, it will certainly be a part of his legacy.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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