[2018/2002 WORLD CUP] The 2018/2022 World Cup bid process officially began on Monday, and one of the two World Cups is surely the USA's to lose. But there is no certainty in a much more sophisticated soccer world than the one that existed 21 years ago when the USA was awarded the 1994 World Cup.
In retrospect, it's amazing FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the USA, then a country of little stature in soccer terms. All the credit goes to the late Werner Fricker, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation at the time, for pulling everything together.
The U.S. soccer world was a different place in 1988. It had been 38 years since the United States had played in the World Cup. The U.S. Soccer Federation was a tiny operation based in Colorado Springs. At the pro level, indoor soccer was king; outdoor soccer was still in the concept stage.
It was only because the competition was nonexistent -- Brazil didn't even have the support of FIFA's Brazilian president, Joao Havelange, and Morocco's stadiums existed only on drawing boards -- that FIFA took a chance on the USA.
We all know the rest of the story.
The United States begins the 2018/2022 bid process in a formidable position because of the abundance of modern stadiums, upward of 40, capable of hosting World Cup games, not to mention, as U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulatiwas quick to point out on Monday's teleconference, those that haven't been built yet but could host a World Cup in 2018 and some that aren't on a planning board yet that could host a World Cup in 2022.
The United States doesn't just have an abundance of stadium options; many of them seat 80,000-90,000 fans with huge revenue potential. (By contrast, Japan's bid is conditional because it doesn't have a stadium that can seat at least 80,000 for the final.)
"We're going to have stadiums in this country which are between 80,000 and 90,000 seats that have never hosted a game," added Gulati. "We're talking about 14 years from now. Dallas is building a stadium. New Jersey is building a stadium. We have stadiums with domes, we have stadiums without domes. We have stadiums in the Northeast, we have stadiums in the Southwest.
Whatever else Gulati said about competing against all other 11 bids, the USA is in competition with only non-European bidders. One of the two World Cups will surely go to Europe, where there are four bidders (England, Russia, Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium) and one firm favorite (England).
The non-European bidders include 2002 co-hosts South Korea and Japan (a conditional bidder), Qatar (home to AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam), Australia (the most ambitious of the Asian bidders), Indonesia (a longshot) and Egypt (a last-minute bidder from Africa). From Concacaf only Mexico announced its intentions to bid.
Among the differences in today's world from 21 years ago is that the (extra) ticket revenue that the USA can bring to the table from its big stadiums isn't as important a factor as it was in 1988. Fees for television and marketing rights have exploded and make up a much greater portion of FIFA's World Cup revenues. Nor is boosting the U.S. soccer market the factor it once was. (Thank you, MLS.) Indeed, the case can be made that Asia is as important a market for FIFA as Europe or the USA, bolstering the case for a second Asia World Cup.
Gulati wasn't about to underestimate the competition.
"There are a lot of competitors and it's a tough competition," said Gulati. "In the end, 24 people decide and you can never know what's going to motivate them in terms of what they think is best for the sport in the world. We've got some very fierce competitors. Our neighbor, Mexico, has hosted two spectacular World Cups. England is home to the No. 1 league in the world in the eyes of many. Spain has put on many great events and has a terrific national team. Australia obviously brings something new.
"There are a lot of very strong competitors. Russia has a lot of resources at its disposal, and I could keep going through all of the competitors. That's the biggest obstacle. We're not going to have a situation like the 2014 bid where FIFA deemed that it was going to South America and there was only one candidate. I would love that situation, but we're completely prepared for and expecting competition. That's why we've put together a great team and we will add to that and put resources into it that will make sure we put in the absolute best bid we can and do everything we can to get a minimum of 13 votes."
Time and again during Monday's teleconference, Gulati came back to the 13 votes. It all boils down to how he and his bid team, headed by David Downs, hired away from his position of president of Univision Sports, can round up the 13 votes from the 24-man FIFA executive committee (yes, they are all men) for the deciding vote in December 2010.
Gulati painted a picture of the world viewing the USA in a much different light since the election and inauguration of Barack Obama.
"I don't think there's any doubt for any of us that what happened over the last several months and what happened two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., has dramatically changed the view of the United States and its leadership around the world," he said. "It would be impossible to think anything differently. For those of us who travel the world quite a bit, that is noticeable, that is audible and it's visible. That clearly is a positive, frankly, for Chicago bidding for the [2016 Summer] Olympics and for any effort to bring the World Cup back here."
A lot can change between now and December 2010, and there's every possibility that the Obama honeymoon will be over by then.
But Gulati insisted the USA had more going for it than the flash that other winning bidders have offered.
"I think what will happen is that we'll have 300 million proponents," he said. "I don't mean literally every person in America, but we've got a growing Hispanic population which loves the game. We've got people who we've found out about through this process who love the game, in very high levels of government and industry, because they have kids who play the game. It might not have the same flash as some of the other World Cup bids, but that's not really the relevant part. The only thing that matters is the 13 votes at the end of the day and that's what we'll work to."
The 24 voters
(FIFA executive committee)
Joseph S. Blatter, Switzerland
Senior Vice President
Julio H. Grondona, Argentina
Issa Hayatou, Cameroon
Mong Joon Chung, South Korea
Jack A. Warner, Trinidad & Tobago
Angel Maria Villar Llona, Spain
Michel Platini, France
Reynald Temarii, Tahiti
Geoff Thompson, England
Michel D'Hooghe, Belgium
Ricardo Teixeira, Brazil
Mohamed Bin Hammam, Qatar
Senes Erzik, Turkey
Chuck Blazer, USA
Worawi Makudi, Thailand
Nicolas Leoz, Paraguay
Viacheslav Koloskov, Russia
Junji Ogura, Japan
Slim Chiboub, Tunisia
Amos Adamu, Nigeria
Marios Lefkaritis, Cyprus
Jacques Anouma, Ivory Coast
Franz Beckenbauer, Germany
Rafael Salguero, Guatemala