Hallelujah! it may be a long way off, but you can sharpen up the lawnmowers and book the samba lessons. The World Cup soccer championship is coming to the U.S. in 1994.
It has been quite a wait—since April 15, 1987, when the U.S. Soccer Federation formally notified La Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport's international ruling body, that the U.S. wanted to host the '94 Cup. In spite of encouraging signals in recent months from FIFA headquarters in Zurich, the suspense over whether the U.S. would win out over rival bids from Morocco and Brazil was maintained, even when FIFA said in March that it was postponing the announcement of its decision from June 30 to the Fourth of July (what could have been more of a tip-off than that?) for "technical reasons."
But few observers were really fooled. The London Daily Mail screamed on its front sports page A STAR-SPANGLED STUNNER, U.S. GET CUP! and followed that up with a subhead that read "The World goes over there in '94 for the razzmatazz!"
Now the official word has come from FIFA House, and it's eminently worth celebrating, because at last the US. will be getting the real thing, the world game, the greatest. World Cup soccer isn't the cheapjack imitation that the now defunct North American Soccer League marketed, with its flacks hustling burned-out European and Latin players, or the meretricious, predigested pap of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
No, Americans will see games like the ones in last month's European Championships in West Germany—fast, physical, nonstop and complex. The finale, in which the Netherlands beat the U.S.S.R. 2-0, marked the return of the Dutch team (a Cup finalist in 1974 and '78) to the international limelight.
Although the exact dates and places for the month-long, 52-game, 12-venue competition in 1994 have not yet been set, the playing sites that have been suggested include the Rose Bowl, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Joe Robbie Stadium and Giants Stadium, where the AstroTurf surface would have to be converted to grass to comply with FIFA's prohibition of artificial turf. The sites finally selected will certainly be geographically well distributed, giving spectators across America a chance to fall in love with Brazilian soccer or the ever talented Italian team, or to align themselves emotionally with...whomever. And, of course, to cheer on the outclassed U.S. team, which as the host will get an automatic berth.
To be sure, six years is a long time to wait for all this, but most great soccer players peak between ages 27 and 32, so there's an excellent chance that some of the young stars of the European Championships will come to America's party. The biggest attraction among them is likely to be Holland's Ruud Gullit, now 25, who's as skilled and exotic as any player in the world. With his face-splitting grin and his harvest of dreadlocks, now widely imitated by Dutch fans, Gullit would be an ideal ambassador to the U.S. for soccer. For all Gullit's explosive pace, he is utterly devoid of tantrum. And he dedicated the European Footballer of the Year award he recently received to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
But riveting personalities aren't the only attraction of the World Cup, which is, quite simply, the biggest sports happening in the world. The total attendance at the 1986 Cup in Mexico was 2.2 million. The cumulative global TV audience was 12.8 billion, with 600 million viewing Argentina's victory over West Germany in the final game. Despite soccer's well-documented failure to build a US. following, even that attendance figure isn't out of reach when one recalls that soccer outdrew all other sports at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
I have to confess, though, that I've known the Cup would be coming to the U.S. ever since a private dinner on April 10. Assembled at a Washington, D.C., restaurant was a five-member delegation from FIFA—two men from Switzerland and one each from Germany, Spain and Scotland. The FIFA representatives had come, ostensibly, to pass a technical verdict on the U.S.'s bid—to evaluate communication and playing facilities and so on. However, the group of reporters that dogged the delegates' heels was sure their mandate was much broader, that the assessment they would send back to FIFA House would constitute a firm yea or nay.
Trouble was, the delegation was tight-lipped—until, that is, the subject of the dinner came up. Had the delegates enjoyed it? somebody inquired, a tad bored. Animation swept over the features of the men in the sober suits. "Clam chowder!" exclaimed the Scot. "Beautiful!" The others chimed in with agreement.
They clammed up again after that. But I knew in a flash they would be back in '94, for more chowder, as well as the best sports party in the world.