Sure, the last thing you want to hear about is another sports crisis. But here goes, because unless something happens soon, the U.S. could become the laughingstock of the sports world, or at least what the rest of the planet considers the sports world. I'm talking about soccer.
You've heard about the U.S. soccer team's debacle at the World Cup finals in Italy. Actually, the team performed about as well as expected—which is to say, at the level of a soccer nonpower. The only team that gave up more goals in the first round was the United Arab Emirates, whose players at least had an excuse: Before the tournament started, they were each given a $368,000 bonus just for qualifying. So what did it matter if they won or not?
Right after the U.S.'s elimination from the finals, the experts began addressing the question of what America should do to avoid being embarrassed in 1994, when the World Cup will be played in the U.S. The consensus, at least among officials of the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), was that America needs a full-fledged outdoor pro league. As it happens, the USSF already has such a league on the drawing board, but there's no reason to believe it will be any more successful than the defunct North American Soccer League. And unless the new league pays enough to attract the best European and South American talent, it will be a poor place for developing world-class U.S. players. It would be smarter to follow the lead of Cameroon—another country without a major professional league—and let the European club system do the dirty work for us. Several of the players who led Cameroon into the quarterfinals of the World Cup last week honed their skills in the tough European leagues.
What gets lost in all this talk about a new American league is the fact that the current administration of the USSF, led by president Werner Fricker, would have trouble organizing a bingo game, let alone the biggest sports event, besides the Olympics, in the world. Some of Fricker's moves since the U.S. won the right in 1988 to host the World Cup:
•Last year he set up an $11.5 million deal with NBC and its cable affiliate SportsChannel America for the English-language broadcast rights to the '94 Cup finals. To the debt-ridden USSF, that sounded like a lot of money, but to FIFA, it seemed paltry. After three other broadcast groups—ABC-ESPN, CBS and TBS-TNT-complained that they hadn't been given an opportunity to bid for the TV rights, FIFA nullified the NBC deal and will now handle the negotiations.
•After two years of work, Fricker's operatives have yet to line up their first sponsor for the 1994 Cup. The reason? The corporate community, which is accustomed to the sophisticated marketing efforts of the NFL, NBA and the like, has been largely turned off by the USSF's lack of big league expertise.
•Last year Fricker alienated America's best goal scorer, Hugo Perez. Perez said that Fricker told him to "take it or leave it" when Perez asked that his $30,000 salary be increased. Thereupon Perez signed with a second-division French club and fractured his right leg. He never made the U.S. World Cup team. In January, several of the other American players threatened a walkout from training camp when they learned the terms of the contracts that Fricker wanted them to sign for 1990. The low wages—ranging from $25,000 to $40,000-didn't bother them as much as the fine print, which gave the USSF the right to veto their moves to other teams. And on those moves it would approve, the USSF would retain as much as 20% of the resulting transfer fee. Fricker stood his ground, and eventually the players who were offered contracts knuckled under. The import of Fricker's move became clear last week when a Belgian club expressed interest in midfielder Tab Ramos. The club, which would give Ramos just the sort of high-caliber competition he can't get at home, offered a $500,000 transfer fee, but the USSF demanded slightly less than $1 million, and the deal fell apart.
Fricker is up for reelection in August, and if he wins another four-year term, FIFA may very well move in and take charge of the selling of the 1994 World Cup. That would be far more humiliating than the setback in Italy. It's one thing to lose a game invented by foreigners and quite another to get beaten in a truly American pastime-sports marketing.
Fricker is being challenged by USSF treasurer Paul Stiehl, one of the architects of the federation's 1994 World Cup bid. Stiehl would be an improvement over Fricker, but it's unclear whether he has the vision to stage a World Cup.
What the U.S. needs is someone who knows how to run an event of this scope, who can cut to the chase with the networks and corporate America, and who can convince a coach like Franz Beckenbauer or Jackie Charlton to take over the national team and turn it into a serious contender.
Where is Peter Ueberroth when you really need him?