America wasn’t ready for a world cup in 1994 – it is now.

Maybe it’s the latent colonial in me, but I’m pretty fascinated by football in America. Football in Europe probably reached its critical mass a long time ago, but in America it’s just getting started, and there’s something exciting about that, because America’s an exciting place, right? With that in mind, I read a piece by Brian Phillips last week in response to comments made by Sepp Blatter (yep, he’s back). This time our old friend Joseph was offending Americans by accusing them of sitting on their collective arse (paraphrasing slightly here) since they hosted the World Cup in ‘94. I’m guessing his main supporting evidence is the fact that, 18 years later, MLS is not a bigger deal than the NFL.

Seen from Sepp’s position the situation is pretty simple: we [FIFA] bestowed our highest honour on America, and it has repaid us with idleness and a lack of progress. Coming from an organisation that literally exists on corporate dining and finger buffets, this really was quite an insult.

There is an obvious flaw in Blatter’s comments, which is the fact that football/soccer has been successful in America. MLS has average attendances that rival Ligue 1 in France, and could well overtake Italy’s Serie A during the next few years. But, that’s not what’s eating Blatter (if only something would eat Blatter). No, he’s disappointed because football isn’t part of mainstream US culture, yet. This reality hurts FIFA, because the premise of their all singing and dancing (literally in ’94, thanks to Diana Ross) tournament is that it can change the world. You just drop a World Cup somewhere and KABOOM – thriving football culture everywhere.

I’ve visited the US a few times, and in truth, this isn’t the reality. It can be easier to find a televised bowling tournament than a football match. But, that doesn’t mean it’s failed to put down roots (a point articulated by Phillips in his response). I think you can make a pretty good comparison with US beer, another area of personal interest. The mainstream is dominated by Budweiser (let’s call that the NFL of beers), Coors (MLB) and Miller (NBA). At a first glance that’s pretty much all you can get, and it’s everywhere. But, you don’t have to look too far before you realise there’s an array of thriving local breweries out there making great beer, and lots of people are enjoying their products. The mainstream still sell more, but the smaller breweries are slowly eating into their market share. Told you it was a good comparison.

I’d like to put the question back to FIFA, and Blatter, by asking what the plan was in 1994 to spread awareness of the tournament in a country without an established professional league and with no mainstream media interest. If no one is watching it other than the people who are already interested in football, then what difference does a world cup make? Answer: zero. But, FIFA being FIFA, they can add zero plus zero and get one. If America hosted a world cup now, then you can bet you’d see a hell of a difference. Interest has grown to that point that mainstream media would have to respond, and the buzz in areas that have developed successful MLS teams would be huge. When you look at the venues for the 94 World Cup you’re struck not only by the stadiums, many of which are completely inappropriate, but that there was nothing in the North West, widely regarded as America’s main football heartland. Good planning!

It’s ironic that the US should be criticised for patient incremental growth in their domestic league, whereas many large European clubs have been driven to the point of financial ruin, but that point is probably lost on the wisdom of FIFA’s glorious Executive Committee.  There are no similar case studies to what is happening in the US. No one has introduced a professional football league into a country where it is competing with three other mainstream sports, or four if you include ice hockey.

America built this league from scratch. It’s unlikely that it’s ever going to compete with the status and revenues of the Champions League, but it doesn’t have to in order to be successful. It needs to create enough interest to spread football fan culture as far and as wide as possible so that, over time, it becomes impossible for the mainstream media to ignore it.

Related stuff:

I wrote a couple of other pieces about football in the US: Soccer in the Deep South (self explanatory title), and The American Outlaws (about an organised fan group that supports the US national team).

Neither of these address the quality of the footballers being developed in America. For some insight on that I suggest you read this piece on SB Nation by this guy.


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6 Responses to America wasn’t ready for a world cup in 1994 – it is now.

  1. Wendell says:

    Thank you for this fine piece. In the interest of fairness, I should point out that, as a condition of hosting World Cup 94, FIFA demanded that the USSF (our FA) set up a professional outdoor league, which directly led to the establishment of MLS. So it’s not as if they expected soccer to magically coalesce, FIFA demanded that the US get organized and ambitious on their league, and they did. Of course, FIFA also interfered in the 1990 elections for USSF president, putting in Alan Rothenberg over Walter Fricker, with none other than Sepp Blatter himself whipping votes for the challenger. Twenty years ago Blatter knew that football is not magic, and that growing the game took risk and effort, but today he can ignore that.

    • Michael says:

      Thanks for your reply Wendell. That all makes perfect sense about the establishment of MLS, but that makes Blatter’s comments even more ridiculous. I remember seeing highlights of MLS (it was on VERY late at night in the UK in the late 90’s) and seeing teams playing in huge stadiums with no spectators, and now loads of them have purpose built football stadiums that they can fill. How anyone can argue that doesn’t represent progress is beyond me.

      • Sgc says:

        That is exactly right, and purpose built homes have incubated the supporter culture in the US. The most striking example of this is in Kansas City, which was once the most depressing case of the NFL mausoleum you describe above, and has now transformed utterly, into one of the more invigorating fan experiences in the league.

  2. C2 says:

    After this year’s Cup final, I wore my Galaxy Keane jersey out in a non-MLS city for a night out to celebrate my birthday and his MVP-like season. Of all the jerseys I have ever worn (NFL, NHL, etc.), I never received so many positive comments, conversation starters, and comments about the match just played and Keane. It was something special. People always want to talk when I wear a MLS jersey out in Columbus or Toronto (and other cities I frequent for matches), but here, where other mainstream sports are the only teams, the conversation was all MLS during the Cup’s day.

  3. Erik says:

    Thanks for the kind word from across the pond…

    Blatter is an idiot, a blowhard, and a criminal, but I digress. As a US-born player for 40 years, I am here to tell you that the growth of the game in the mainstream consciousness of the American public is huge. Even when WC94 was here, you could all but hear the snicker in the voices of sportscasters when announcing scores or pronouncing player names. That has disappeared.

    The money guys needed to make the investment of cash to get MLS off the ground had the horrible memory of NASL fresh in their minds. You know, profligate spending like the FairPlay rules are supposed to put a stop to for UEFA? Gradual growth has worked. There are now more cities ready to put 20K+ butts in seats than there are teams to cheer for.

    The beer analogy is dead-on. It took more than 50 years for NFL games to not get cut off when they went long on TV. That we now enjoy matches commercial-free borders on the miraculous. Extending the beer analogy: Champions League, EPL and Internationals would be Sam Adams (the craft beer everyone knows about) and MLS would be what gets served at your local microbrew pub (tasty, with a growing following).

    Changing demographics are strongly in footy’s favor. The game has supplanted everything other than NFL, MLB, and NBA as favorites among the under-40 set and an increasingly immigrant population don’t have to push their kids into “American” sports to assimilate. Did I mention that footy is the only sport with no less than three dedicated TV channels on cable/satellite and that it is possible to burn your entire weekend watching live games from sunup to sundown for eight months out of the year?

    I suggest Herr Doktor stick to commenting on things he truly understands, like how to use the world’s passion for its greatest sport to launder money and support your mistress.

    • Michael says:

      I’ve been visiting the US every other year for about six years and even in that short space of time I’ve noticed a change. You’re right about the dedicated cable channels – which are great – and I love that you can wake up and watch the Premier League live on a Saturday or Sunday morning, and then get on with your day! The point I was making in the piece is that when I’ve been watching the main sports channels I rarely see anyone talking about football, and if you walk into a bar it’s always NFL, college football, MLB or NBA – it feels like you have to know where to look to find a bar that shows football. But, you can find them – I watched the Champions League final at a bar in Nashville and it was packed. Give it another five to ten years and I think interest in football will be even more obvious. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

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