By Paul Gardner
The latest move by the United States Soccer Federation strikes me as being crass, cheap, tasteless, tacky and thoroughly reprehensible. In addition to which, and in answer to your next question, I don’t like it.
I refer to a breathless press release from the USSF announcing a SPECIAL OFFER. Before the USA vs. Spain game in Boston on June 4, fans will be granted the unbelievable opportunity of attending the practice sessions of the USA and world champions Spain.
So far so good. Then comes the sleazy bit. For this privilege, fans will be asked to fork up $20 or $25. $25 to watch an effing practice session?
No doubt there will be takers, no doubt there are enough misguided souls out there who will swallow the USSF line that this is an act of great magnanimity, when it is in fact a sordid example of naked greed.
I’m not the least bit interested in whether other teams pull this stunt, or how many times it’s been done before, or whether it’s done in other sports. It should not be done, in this country, at this stage of the development of soccer.
If fans, and particularly youth players, want to watch the USA -- their national team -- practicing they should be encouraged to attend -- for free. There are already enough money problems at the youth level with the exigencies of the pay-to-play approach ... what on earth is USSF thinking of that it should want to make money out of youth development? And that thought is clearly in the USSF’s thinking -- why else would they be mentioning “groups of 20 or more” (without detailing any special rates for them) ... what groups would those be, if not youth clubs?
One of my more delightful soccer experiences came in 1982, during the World Cup in Spain, when I drove to a ramshackle little stadium outside Barcelona, where Brazil was practicing -- a practice that was open to the public. For free. The place was jammed with several thousand Spanish fans, the atmosphere was one of pure joy and excitement. “Press?” asked a guy wearing some sort of official Brazil badge, “This way.” I found myself on the field, standing on the touchline ... talking at length with the great Vava, who was an assistant coach.
OK, that was 1982. No one bothered much about security in those days. But the gap between that blissful afternoon and this SPECIAL OFFER from the USSF is obscene. There was a time, not that long ago -- wasn’t there? I’m not dreaming this, am I? -- when the USA would have been only too pleased to stage a friendly meet-the-players, photo-op, autograph-signing event.
Now, apparently, the USSF considers itself and its team above that sort of common-touch approach. You want to watch one of Bob Bradley’s training sessions (an experience that I would not personally rate as an all-time high)? OK, cough up. Someone at the USSF -- let us hope it was one of their marketing geniuses, and not a responsible soccer person -- came up with this bright idea, someone had to conceive the notion, “Hey, we can make some money out of this.” And it would be highly interesting to know if the idea was to charge for watching world champion Spain, with the USA piggy-backing on that attraction.
How much money is to be made? Even assuming that a wild stampede of 10,000 fans turned up, at $20 a pop that’s $200,000. Which is peanuts. The USSF is not in need of that money. It seems to feel a little guilty about it by announcing that the “proceeds” of this fan-gouging will be devoted to ... no, not charity, they can’t go that far, but to “support USSF coaching initiatives.”
Again, I’m not interested in exactly what that means, because, whatever it may mean, it is merely an attempt to put an acceptable gloss on a shoddy venture that should never have been even considered in the first place.
One must also wonder where this might lead. How long before we’re invited to spend $500 for a place at a special “meet-the-coach” gala dinner, with proceeds going to another vague USSF cause?
The ultimate responsibility for this blunder, this unsightly blot on the USSF’s escutcheon, lies, of course, with USSF president Sunil Gulati. He should have squashed it as soon as it came to his attention.
The fact that this sordid idea has managed to become obnoxious reality is a stark reminder of the extent to which commercialism -- and not just commercialism itself, but the commercial way of looking at things -- has leeched its way into the very center of our sport.
That may be OK for the pro version of soccer. But the USSF represents something beyond that, it represents the vast number of players, most of them kids, who are precisely not involved in the pro game. It is the responsibility of the USSF to think of the sport. To ask themselves first -- Is this good for soccer? Not, as the commercial community will always ask -- How can we make money out of this?
I am told, repeatedly, just how important is the business side of the game these days. Of course, of course. I’d have to be incredibly obtuse not to understand that. Understanding that money matters hardly calls for any great intellectual activity on anyone’s part.
But the quid pro quo, the attempt to make the commercialists accept that the sport, soccer, matters too, and that it matters in ways far deeper and more mysterious than any balance sheet can ever reveal ... that is not so easy. My experience is that most of the commercial group, do not understand that at all. There is an awful shallowness to the commercial mind, not surprising when profit dominates the thinking. It’s a mentality that fits nicely into Oscar Wilde’s famous definition of cynics -- Those who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. And it is the value of soccer, and the value of the USSF’s image, that have been traded for a mess of pottage and thus tarnished by this brazen hucksterism.