The big wheels of the Italian Soccer Federation were rambling through New Jersey a few months back, sizing up hotels where their national team could bivouac during June. One of the last places on their list was the Somerset Hills Hotel in Warren, which they subjected to the ultimate scrutiny: ordering a round of fedelini con pomodori freschi at the lobby restaurant. If the pasta was served slightly al dente and if the sauce was made from ripe tomatoes and wasn't too acidic, they figured the hotel would be a worthy Rome away from Rome. The plates arrived. Forks were raised; spoons poised; spaghetti swallowed. "Perfect," said one VIP "Now, we negotiate."
Starting on June 17 the Italians will be one of two dozen nations participating in another taste test in the U.S., this one a 31-day banquet of soccer called the World Cup. To determine the sport's champion for the next four years, teams from 24 nations will play 52 matches in nine cities, commencing in Chicago and culminating in the championship game on July 17 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. By that day this question will be answered: Having feasted on il Mondiale, the finest dish that soccer can serve, just how much of the sport can Americans stomach?
As with all matters gastronomic, it's best to know what you're eating before you dig in, and there are plenty of indications that the average Yank knows little, if anything, about the Cup. In fact, if you have digested the preceding paragraph, you have swelled the ranks of those U.S. adults who can identify the World Cup as a soccer tournament: 25%, according to a Harris poll taken in February. And by knowing that the '94 Cup will take place in this country, you add to a cognoscenti constituting 20%. A World Cup official, when confronted with these piddling percentages, will invariably say that 25% of U.S. adults represents nearly 50 million people, and that's a lot. Of course, that leaves 140 million who may be less aware of the World Cup than the Winston Cup or the Walker Cup.
Which is anomalous, since the World Cup is indisputably the most intensely anticipated and watched sports spectacle on the planet, especially by most of the 179 nations of the Fèdèration Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA), which governs the sport and oversees the Cup. As Dave Jensen, the Venue Executive Director (VED) in Washington, D.C., puts it, "To 178 countries it's the most important thing in the world. We happen to be the 179th." But in bringing the World Cup to its least-savored nation, FIFA acted with the knowledge that its crown jewel event is so impassioned, so impressive, so mammoth that the American press and public will have to pay it some attention.
May 8, 1994
Whether they like it is another story. Charged with cooking up interest in the sport are the organizers at the nine sites where the games will be played. Here's a sampler of what's happening around the country as the Cup draws near.
Chicago: The First City
Thanks in part to the lobbying of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago secured the right to present the World Cup opening ceremonies at Soldier Field before Bolivia and Germany, the defending champion, kick off play. The mayor's "full-court press," as he calls it, was prompted by the notion of more than two billion televiewing eyeballs riveted on Chicago, and Daley doesn't worry that an outbreak of violence at the match might stain the city's image.
The pooh-bahs of World Cup USA 1994, Inc., the organizer of this year's tournament, are hardly glib when it comes to security, their biggest budget item—more than $6 million in L.A. alone—and their biggest bugaboo. Cup '94 chairman Alan Rothenberg has asked that cities not sell alcohol in and around their stadiums on game days (rankling many, including Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser, the official beer of the World Cup), and he has demanded that reporters seeking credentials sign waivers to release any police and FBI records on their personal backgrounds (rankling news organizations). This zealous caution underscores just what a tightrope the organizers are walking: They must try to avoid alarming the many Americans who associate soccer with danger, while at the same time heightening security so that they can curtail any violence that may occur. As Daley says, "They cannot have an incident."
Already, the U.S.'s vigilance for potential provocateurs has paid off. Before the World Cup draw in Las Vegas last December, 17 English hooligans were turned back from Boston's Logan Airport, and an advance man for a team of South American pickpockets was nabbed in Florida, where he was setting up for business six months before the Cup. The failure of the Iraqi team to qualify for the tournament should reduce the fear of terrorism, and the absence of the English team, notorious for its rowdy followers, should lessen the number of hooligans in attendance. "When England was eliminated [in the qualifying round], that took a huge weight off our shoulders," says Lee Flosi, the venue security manager in Chicago. "We can deal with the 10 or 15 troublemakers; it's the 500 that's hard to handle."
Crowd mayhem is far less prevalent during World Cup games than at European and South American league matches, and it should be further diminished in the U.S., where soccer passions don't run as high and to which rabid fans from abroad may find it too costly to come. Flosi, who previously supervised the FBI's organized-crime task force in Chicago, says security personnel with metal-detecting wands will pat down those entering Soldier Field, and a closed-circuit TV system can provide coverage of every seat in the stadium and every license plate in the parking lot. "They say if there's a dime on the ground," he says, "these cameras can see the date."
New York/New Jersey: Venue, Vidi, Vici
In the entryway to each venue office is a placard that counts down the number of days until the opener. The decreasing digits only accelerate the already frantic pace of 36-year-old attorney Charlie Stillitano, the VED for Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Despite 20-hour days that may include fielding irate phone calls from the New Jersey governor and sweet-talking a union boss, along with attending countless meetings and overseeing a paid staff of 30, plus some 1,500 volunteers, he fairly bounces down the hallway, high-fiving, schmoozing, exhorting.
To Stillitano, a former sweeper at Princeton and in the American Soccer League, participating in the Cup is like sipping champagne from the Holy Grail. It is especially sweet because Italy, homeland of both of Stillitano's parents, will play at the Meadowlands and train in his native New Jersey. At the December draw, the field was divided into six four-team groups; each team will play three games in a round-robin over the Cup's first fortnight. After that, the top 16 countries advance to the one-loss-and-ciao knockout rounds, which will include a semifinal match at the New Jersey site.
In all, the Italians will play between two and five games at the Meadowlands, which means Stillitano is hearing from ticket-seeking Stillitanos from around the globe, including one unfamiliar relative from the Ivory Coast. On some days this outpouring of interest can bring tears to the VED's eyes. "The people in soccer have been preaching to the choir for a long time," he says. "Now all the things that we have been talking about for years—the passion, the excitement—everyone in America will get to see for themselves."
Orlando: Open for Business
The rumor around Church Street is that bars have ordered 4,000 kegs of Guinness for the incoming Irish. The city's TOPS—Tourist Oriented Police Service—have received sensitivity training and now know that Dutch fans are only being playful when they make off with an officer's hat. Brochures providing advice will be available to those battling the bewildering heat during games that will start at 12:30 p.m. in the Citrus Bowl.
While it may seem that the World Cup invasion is only a rumor at this point, host cities are in fevered preparation for the projected million international visitors, who will contribute a large chunk of the estimated $4 billion that will be spent between the Atlantic and the Pacific over the course of a month. Even in Orlando, where there's a theme park on every corner, the organizers are laying on a dozen concerts, festivals and fairs to entertain fans between games. "I'm more concerned about how we behave than how our visitors from around the world do," says Joanie Schirm-Neiswender, the cochair of the venue's host committee. Indeed, since the fall of '92, 11 foreign tourists have been killed in Florida, not to mention that in the same span two visiting soccer teams have had their hotel rooms burglarized during trips to the U.S.
San Francisco: Sprucing Up
Each of the nine stadiums required substantial work to lit FIFA's guidelines, from expanding the playing surface to supplanting artificial turf with grass, as in Detroit and East Rutherford. But none needed more extensive renovations than 73-year-old Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, which underwent a $5 million face-lift: Aluminum bleachers replaced wooden ones, locker rooms and rest rooms were refurbished, a volunteer crew of high school students spent days cleaning debris from under the stands. The field itself demanded some work, but soon it will need more: On June 12, eight days before Brazil takes on Russia in this venue's opener, the turf will be trampled on by 30,000 during Stanford graduation ceremonies.
Detroit: Terra Unfamilia
On this day Channel 5 from Thailand is in town. A three-man TV crew is roving around a huge expanse of turf assembled in the parking lot outside the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. The cameraman takes a three-minute close-up of soil and sandbags. The reporter kneels close to the sod. "I think it's very good grass, some of the best," he says. "There's lots of kinds of grass—green, white, yellow, brown, purple. It's very nice."
To understand the magnitude of the World Cup you need only to measure the level of fascination with this blend of ryegrass and Kentucky blue, which has attracted media ranging from Thailand's Channel 5 to Plastics News. And on June 18, when the U.S. plays on this turf against Switzerland, the event will indeed mark a huge technological advance: the first indoor World Cup match. By dividing the field into 1,850 hexagonal slabs, each weighing 3,000 pounds, the turf-grass engineers at Michigan State, with a team of 30 workers, expect to move the grass from the parking lot into the dome in 30 hours.
In anticipation of yet more press, the engineers have even undergone interview training. Says project head Trey Rogers, "More people are going to hear about Michigan State University from this project alone than from a combination of every project in the history of the school. And Michigan State is something like 138 years old."
Washington, D.C.: The Straight Ticket
A recent ad from "Personals Plus" in The Washington Post: "SWF ISO SWM w/World Cup tickets. Sporty type ISO indoor & outdoor fun!"
With 3.6 million tickets available—one third allotted internationally, two thirds to the host nation—the U.S. will probably have the best-attended Cup ever. But because some of the 36 first-round matches involve teams with small followings, brokers will doubtless be In Search Of buyers. However, the June 29 game between Belgium and Saudi Arabia at RFK Stadium may be a scalpers' bonanza, given the passion and deep pockets of the Saudis, whose team has qualified for the first time. Word is that the players each received a $100,000 bonus and a Mercedes for making it to the World Cup.
"People love to talk about these things," says Osama Nugali, director of the information office at the Saudi embassy, "but it is an exaggeration." One Cup official demurs. "Believe it," he says.
Boston: The Bolivian Connection
Fall River, Mass. (pop. 92,574), situated an hour south of Boston, has a rich soccer history that includes the first U.S. league, founded there in 1885, and native son Billy (Piano Legs) Gonsalves, a renowned center half for the U.S. in the 1930s. The tradition has been perpetuated by a citizenship with deep Portuguese roots that was crushed when Portugal failed to qualify for the Cup. But the good folk of Fall River rallied, and after the draw, they set their sights on hosting a team scheduled to play at least one game 40 miles up the road, at Foxboro Stadium. So they lured the Bolivians—they will play South Korea on June 23—in for an inspection visit.
They plastered WELCOME BOLIVIA signs in the locker rooms and the chancellor's office of UMass-Dartmouth, where the team could train and stay. They dispatched a campus police cruiser to make sure a Bolivian liaison caught his flight home. They argued that if the Bolivians stayed in Chicago, where they will play twice, they would be overshadowed there by the Germans. And they helped defray the Bolivians' travel costs by raising $25,000 in two days.
Fall Riverites wooed Bolivia because it was good for the city; they won the Bolivians' hearts because of their devotion to soccer. Businessmen talk of taking "a leave of absence" from the family on Sunday to watch games televised from Holland, Spain and, natch, Portugal. "Soccer is not a pastime, it is a true sport," says Frank Cabral, president of the local Portuguese Business Association. "If someone asks me to get up during the game and go for a beer, I say, 'You're crazy.' I'm going to punch him. This is not like baseball. The World Series! How can it be a World Series? There is only one country playing!"
Dallas: TV Dinners (and Dessert, Too)
Construction began in February on the International Broadcast Center near the Cotton Bowl, where the games in Big D will be played, and the undertaking was formidable. The landmark art deco buildings at Fair Park had to be converted into a state-of-the-art TV complex to service the 120 networks that will beam the matches to 32 billion viewers 24 hours a day. (The two U.S. networks covering the World Cup, ABC and ESPN, will use their studios back East to air each of the 52 games live without commercial interruption.) A 40,000-square-foot minimall also had to be built with banks, shops and travel offices to cater to the 3,000 international journalists who will be stationed here for two months. And the incoming press did insist there be at least one yogurt stand built on the premises.
Los Angeles: Feast or Famine?
By July 17, when the seventh and final match is played at the Rose Bowl and watched by some two billion fans worldwide, it will be clear whether soccer has made the inroads in the U.S. hoped for by FIFA. The Cup will generate a profit for the U.S. Soccer Federation that Rothenberg estimates at $25 million; most of the 16 million soccer players in the States—the majority of them under 18—will follow the action; and the nine host cities will realize billions of dollars in revenues from the soccer traffic.
It will first be up to the venues to set the table and then up to the matches to leave watchers feeling full. But if the home team fails to galvanize interest, and if a series of violent acts further blemishes the sport, and if the U.S. TV ratings don't climb past those of The X-Files, then soccer, for Americans, will remain no more important than ski jumping—an event to be glanced at every quadrennium. The grand plans for robust pro leagues in the U.S. and the long-awaited soccer boom will again go bust.
Dan Tana, the owner of the restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard that bears his name, played professionally in his native Yugoslavia and has been involved in soccer since emigrating to the U.S. in 1955. He knows a bit about the appetites of Americans ISO indoor & outdoor fun. "I think it is going to be tough," Tana says. "For one month the Cup will be important here. But the promotion and media attention has been very minimal. But I hope I am wrong, wrong, wrong, and it carries on."