Certain things just don't happen in sports. Har-Tru doesn't get laid down at Wimbledon, outboard motors don't power shells at Henley, and the United States most assuredly does not beat the mother country in soccer. England has won—or England have won, as the Brits would put t—every match between the two countries except for the astonishing 1-0 upset by the U.S. in the 1950 World Cup. In soccer, football, "footy" or whatever you choose to call it, nothing other than a win by England is possible, entertainable or within reason. Just use your head.
Which the Yanks did. Twice, in fact, scoring two goals on headers in an epochal 2-0 victory over England on June 9 in Foxboro, Mass., that caused wags in the press box to tap out dispatches invoking 1776 and all that. The U.S. lost its other two matches in the U.S. Cup, a two-week, four-nation round-robin tournament that served as a dress rehearsal for the U.S. in its role as host of the 1994 World Cup. On June 6 the U.S. was shut out by Brazil 2-0, and on Sunday it fell to defending world champion Germany 4-3. But those losses didn't matter, just as it didn't matter that England was missing Paul (Gazza) Gascoigne, the midfielder who's among the finest players in the world, or that the Brits may not even qualify for next summer's World Cup. England is still England, the team that came within a couple of penalty kicks of the 1990 World Cup final, and yet the U.S. won. "If this isn't on the front page of every paper tomorrow, I don't know what we have to do," said U.S. midfielder John Harkes. "They've given us the World Cup, and now we've shown we can play at this level."
The U.S. upset was all over the English papers, but it was reduced to little more than agate in much of the United States. Still, the U.S. Cup has been a success off the field as well as on. Through Sunday, crowds averaging 45,000 had not only turned out but actually behaved themselves, meaning that the World Cup venue city of Orlando, Fla., where the county sheriff recently requisitioned an armored vehicle in anticipation of hooliganism next June, might consider chilling out a bit. The biggest revelation was that the U.S. appears capable of playing with the best in the world. Even the pooh-bahs of the Zurich-based Fèdèration Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the international governing body that owns the World Cup and hopes its staging here will help flog the sport to Americans, must have been astonished.
No one is promising a Lake Placid-style Miracle on Grass from the team that found itself overmatched against Brazil. But three players with international experience—Tab Ramos, who plays in the Spanish second division, and Thomas Dooley and Eric Wynalda, who play in Germany's first division—joined the U.S. for the game against England and made an instant difference. Late in the first half, as visiting members of Parliament looked on in horror, Ramos launched a smart cross and Tom Dooley hung down his head and met the ball, knocking it past English goalkeeper Chris Woods.
June 20, 1993
Early in the second half Dooley, who is the product of a brief union between an American serviceman and a German woman and only recently learned to speak English, limped off with an ankle injury. His replacement, Alexi Lalas, hails from Birmingham—no, not the one in England, but the decidedly non-working-class suburb of Detroit—and plays bass in a rock band called the Gypsies. The first time he touched the ball he nodded approvingly at a corner kick from Ramos, and suddenly the U.S. had scored on a second header.
All evening long the English had chances to beat U.S. goalie Tony Meola, who made 15 saves. Their two best opportunities came in the final 10 minutes of the match, both off the foot of striker Ian Wright. Meola dived to his right to deflect the first one and, barely a minute later, smothered the second at point-blank range.
All in all it was a welcome result for U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic, whose seven-year-old daughter, Darinka, had demanded to know earlier that day whether Papa's team would win.
"Why, of course," Bora found himself saying. "It's your birthday, and this will be your birthday present."
Milutinovic is a transplanted Serb who has spent much of his life coaching in Central America, where he picked up a reputation as a quadrennial wonder worker. He took Mexico to the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup and guided Costa Rica into the second round in '90. He answers questions with habitual shrugs of his shoulders, an armor-plated smile and oblique Spanglish. His Latin-style "build from the back" attack relies on a patient series of passes, and his conservative 5-4-1 formation, in which five defenders patrol the backfield rather than the more common four, provides Meola with a convoy of support. But on offense the U.S. scheme can sometimes be Bora-ing. The U.S. had failed to score a goal for 389 consecutive minutes before last week and had won only one of their previous 15 matches. But those games were played without most of their international ringers. And even when he has the services of such English Premier League veterans as Harkes and forward Roy Wegerle, Milutinovic realizes his team could get pummeled if it were to play recklessly. Against superior opponents, his style can keep the U.S. close.
Like the U.S. team. World Cup USA 1994, Inc., the nonprofit organization established by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) to stage the world's most-watched sporting spectacle, has had its difficulties. In 1991 World Cup USA organizers rigged up a 48-foot display trailer to take the Cup itself on a barnstorming tour of shopping malls and convention centers. The Trophy Tour hemorrhaged money, and after six months World Cup USA chief executive officer and USSF president Alan Rothenberg finally put a stop to it. Heavy turnover in some top executive positions led to costly contract settlements and left FIFA officials alarmed. Striker, the World Cup '94 mascot, appeared in early renderings wearing a jersey with horizontal stripes (common to rugby, not soccer) and with a ball wedged under his arm (a flagrant violation of the rules). There was also trouble when the organizers held a private ticket sale for the U.S. "soccer family" and so badly underestimated demand that they wound up having to stiff thousands of the sport's devotees.
With one year to go, however, World Cup USA seems to have righted itself. After Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., undergoes some further gussying up, FIFA will be satisfied with the state of all nine venues (the other sites are Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando and Washington, D.C.). At this Saturday's Germany-England game in the Pontiac Silverdome, the world will see the result of a grand experiment in growing grass indoors; some 1.800 hexagonal slabs of sod—a "field of seams," in the words of Steve Grinczel of Booth Newspapers—should put to rest lingering suspicions overseas that the U.S. can't be trusted with the world's most popular game. Upon hearing the World Cup organizers' prediction early this year that every match would sell out, The Miami Herald wrote, "And the cow will jump over the moon, Venus and just for laughs, zip on over to Pluto." Well, clear Elsie for runway 1: Nearly all of the one million first-and second-round tickets allotted to the U.S. had been snapped up by last weekend.
The stated mission of World Cup '94 is twofold: "To put on the best World Cup ever, and to leave a legacy for soccer in this country." What of that legacy? If a soccer boom is ever to take place in the U.S., there will never be a better detonator than the World Cup. Will a monthlong exhibition of world-class soccer on U.S. soil finally catapult the sport forward? Will the largest possible war chest be in place to fund soccer's future in this country? And what is the status of plans for a first-rank professional league? Taking each question in turn:
•The Game. Some 16 million people in the U.S. now play soccer. The problem is the game's status Stateside as a spectator sport. The 1990 World Cup in Italy did little to help. The first round was marked by eye-glazing action, as teams played conservatively, hoping to squeeze through to the second round with a tie. Ugly ties will look just as hideous next June, and Rothenberg knows it. "The feast is FIFA's," he says. "We set the table. But obviously it would be a horrible shame and a missed opportunity if the quality of play suffers in ways that occurred too frequently in 1990." Rothenberg hopes FIFA will decide to award three, not two, points to a team scoring a first-round victory (a tie is good for one point) and thus encourage aggressive play.
•The War Chest. If all goes according to plan, Rothenberg says, the '94 World Cup should generate a $25 million surplus for a foundation to benefit U.S. soccer. To a sport long run out of a change purse, the prospect of such a windfall is intoxicating. But it has divided the U.S. soccer community into two camps. On one side are the Jerseys—old USSF hands who have wandered through the soccer wilderness and now see a clearing up ahead. On the other are the Suits, marketing and event professionals, many of them veterans of the '84 Olympics.
The Jerseys scorn the World Cup USA stall—housed in windowless offices they feel are emblematic of a lack of vision—as "the biggest law firm in Los Angeles." They blanch at contracts for senior executives that call for bonuses from the low six figures on up. They were appalled to see a dozen World Cup USA muckamucks and some of their spouses take junkets to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. To fill one vacancy. World Cup USA retained a head-hunting firm at a cost of $45,000. Scott LeTellier became Rothenberg's chief lieutenant for almost $175,000 a year, plus an array of perks that included a club membership worth at least $40,000. To the many Jerseys who would work for nothing on behalf of their game's great event, this is spendthrift folly.
The Jerseys are unimpressed that Rothenberg himself is forgoing a salary. They point out that he's still a partner at Latham and Watkins, an L.A. law firm that has done legal work for World Cup USA, and they suggest that he's working too hard on his Peter Ueberroth impression, trying to take his compensation in ego gratification. Since January of last year Rothenberg has sent several memos to his public relations staff bemoaning the Cup's low profile in the press and his own poor standing among the 100 most powerful people in sports, as ranked by The Sporting News. After dropping from No. 86 in 1991 to No. 95 last year, he wrote, "I expect to be listed in the Top 25 as of January 1993, Top 10 as of January 1994, and be No. 1 as of January 1995. Start working on it now." (For the record, he didn't make the list at all in '93.)
The Suits defend themselves spiritedly. LeTellier points out that he makes less than his counterpart with the Atlanta Olympic organizing committee. Rothenberg notes that Latham and Watkins has also provided many hours of service pro bono and insists that any schism isn't between soccer and nonsoccer people but between those who are wise in the ways of business and those who are not. "People say, 'Oh, we need soccer people,' " says Hank Steinbrecher, the USSF's secretary general, who cites his days of lining fields and picking up dirty jockstraps as evidence that he has a foot in both camps. "But our world is so incestuous. Soccer needs new blood and new vigor."
Rothenberg is sharp and energetic, and as commissioner of the '84 Olympic soccer tournament, he pulled that event off with aplomb. Had he not been elected USSF president in 1990, FIFA officials, who were disappointed with the progress of the Cup effort to that point, may well have relocated their gemstone event to some other, more soccer-savvy locale. "Undoubtedly there remain some nay-sayers," says Rothenberg. "But I think FIFA now knows we're not soccer heathens who'll ruin this great sport."
The Jerseys nonetheless fear that every penny earmarked for the Suits' perks and bonuses today will be one less with which to seed the sport tomorrow. One former Suit shares those concerns. "To me the people in the soccer world were the shareholders of the company where I worked," said Charles Kenny soon after his resignation as World Cup USA's chief administrative officer last November. "I felt my effort should be geared to the shareholders. Do they want hundreds of millions of dollars, new stadiums, more publicity for soccer?" Kenny concluded that they did—and that World Cup USA lacked focus in its efforts to deliver on those goals.
And now the players on the U.S. national team want a piece of the action. Those who don't have contracts overseas train year-round in Mission Viejo, Calif., where the USSF provides housing and pays them salaries ranging from $25,000 to $70,000. The federation limits their ability to strike individual endorsement deals. Distressed at their paltry share of a marketing agreement the USSF reached in May with Ralston-Purina, the players signed agent Leigh Steinberg to represent them. "Obviously the World Cup is a golden opportunity for soccer in the U.S.," says Steinberg, who met with Rothenberg last week. "Nobody wants to make a federal case out of this, because, god knows, there's enough public revulsion at the money some players make in team sports. But these guys are more or less owned lock, stock and barrel by the USSF. They essentially have no rights."
•The League. In 1988 FIFA awarded its prize to the U.S. with the understanding that an elite outdoor league—comparable to the late North American Soccer League, which thrived during the late '70s before overexpansion and overspending did it in—would be established in the U.S. by '92. It's '93, and a league doesn't exist even on paper. FIFA now wants to see by next Jan. 1 a business plan for a league that would begin play in the spring of '95. "We don't want a new league to fail, because we know the next chance will be the last one," says Guido Tognoni, a spokesman for FIFA, which has mandated that at least 30% of the World Cup surplus be set aside to develop a league.
No matter what happens, next year's World Cup will be one hell of a blowout—the World Cup final only outdraws your average Super Bowl by, oh, about a billion television viewers—but the question remains whether it will cost so much to stage that the U.S.'s soccer inheritance will be lost. The long-suffering Jerseys wish the Suits shared their priorities: one, for the money: two, for the show.
As of Sunday night, after the U.S. team had played its three to get ready, there were 369 days to go.