This year marks the 20th anniversary of the USA hosting the 1994 World Cup. We caught up with Alan Rothenberg, the head of the USA 1994 Organizing Committee who served as U.S. Soccer President in 1990-1998.
Interview by Mike Woitalla
SOCCER AMERICA: What was it like, 20 years ago, when you were a few months from the kickoff of the 1994 World Cup?
ALAN ROTHENBERG: Working 24/7. High energy. We had a countdown clock -- by the second -- in the lobby of our offices. We knew we were ready. We had extreme confidence, not overconfidence, not cockiness.
SA: Not very similar, I imagine, to how it must be now for the organizers in Brazil, where there is much concern about stadiums, airports and security?
ALAN ROTHENBERG: It’s not really comparable. The USA has so much infrastructure -- airports, hotels. We didn’t have to build brand new stadiums. We refurbished some. We built some training sites.
SA: Do you think it will all work out in Brazil?
ALAN ROTHENBERG: When it comes to World Cup and Olympics preparation -- in the run-up all they do is talk about preparations. Whether it’s infrastructure, security, whatever -- that’s all they have to write about. Like Sochi -- that stuff disappears and then finally it’s about the competition. I don’t underestimate some of the problems Brazil is having, but at the end of the day it will be great World Cup. … It’s Brazil. It will be carnival the whole time.
SA: What were the biggest challenges your organizing committee faced?
ALAN ROTHENBERG: Kind of the reverse of Brazil. We had the stadiums but not the soccer culture. We just had to make sure we had people who knew how to line fields for a soccer game. We had to build up public interest in sales and sponsorship. And we did have a huge span of the country to coordinate – nine cities. But at this time 20 years ago, the tickets were sold, so we weren’t worried about empty stadiums.
SA: When the USA was awarded the World Cup, the skeptics questioned the idea of a non-soccer power hosting the event. But 3.6 million fans attending 52 games in 1994 remains a World Cup record, even though subsequent World Cups have had 64 games …
ALAN ROTHENBERG: We had bigger stadiums, huge stadiums. We basically sold out 99 percent of the tickets. In most countries, some of the early games with less popular teams don’t sell out.
SA: On the domestic side, there were fears of hooliganism …
ALAN ROTHENBERG: We got very lucky that England didn’t qualify – but regardless, we were prepared. … In Orlando, they had a brand new sheriff who predicted things would be horrible. But when the Irish played in Orlando, the police ended up dancing in the streets with the Irish fans. It was such a great scene all over the country. ... At the final, the editor of the Los Angeles Times told me he had writers in all nine cities looking for something bad to write about -- and they couldn’t find it.
SA: Do you recall any problems?
ALAN ROTHENBERG: For the opening game in Chicago, we had all kinds of dress rehearsals. It was over 100 degrees. Then, because the President [Bill Clinton] was coming to the game, the Secret Service came in and changed everything on the spot. They wouldn’t let anyone in the stadium an hour before the game. But it worked out. In New York, one of the nets broke. I got to hand it to the guys there. They had a backup goal.
SA: What were your favorite memories?
ALAN ROTHENBERG: When we beat Colombia, a darkhorse favorite. And the Fourth of July game against Brazil, even though we lost. It was so amazing seeing how Americans really got caught up in the excitement. We had 90,000 fans. Americans face-painted, singing -- it was such a joyful scene.
SA: One of the main goals of hosting the World Cup was to supply the boost for a professional league, MLS, which you helped found …
ALAN ROTHENBERG: We used the World Cup as a showcase to attract sponsors and investors. Even as the World Cup was going on we held a lot of meetings of potential sponsors. When Philip Anschutz [MLS’s biggest patron] opened the Home Depot Center [in 2003], he said to me, “You know those free tickets you gave me for the Brazil-Italy game, so far they’ve cost me $250 million.”
The 1994 World Cup gave soccer the stamp of approval from the commercial side, media and sponsors. The whole landscape of changed. The World Cup led to everything. Without that great success we never would have had Major League Soccer, or the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which continues giving grants for the growth of the sport. We would never have had the gumption to put on the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which of course was an enormous success. [Editor’s Note: Rothenberg was Chairman of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.]
The Foundation [launched with about $60 million of World Cup profits] put up the seed money for MLS and the 1999 Women’s World Cup. We wouldn't have been able to get private investors without that. The Foundation saved AYSO when it had an adverse court decision against it. And the Foundation continues to be fund inner-city programs, like Soccer for Success, and field projects.
SA: How do you see the state of MLS today?
ALAN ROTHENBERG: MLS is doing great. I just came from a meeting with [Commissioner] Don Garber. The value of the teams has continued to soar. Our original business plan was to have soccer-specific stadiums -- we believed we weren’t going to succeed with American football stadiums or junior college or high school stadiums. It took a while to get that going – but now it’s mostly going great. And the league continues to improve.
SA: Besides heading the organizing committee for the World Cup, you were of course also presiding over the U.S. Soccer Federation …
ALAN ROTHENBERG: When I came in there … I equate to being run by the PTA, where there are a lot of well-meaning people with their hearts in the right place – but it was amateur hour. What we did was professionalize U.S. Soccer and once that happened the turf battles pretty much faded. There’s some still around, but the power now is at the top level. When we came in there the Federation was broke. Our offices were in an old Air Force shed in Colorado Springs. Now we have a great office in Chicago and multi-millions in the bank.
That focus changed the quality and stature of the U.S. national team improved. In 1989, we snuck into our first World Cup in 40 years. Because we had no top level professional league, we put our players in a full-time, two-year training camp – and they developed tremendously. Probably better than if they were scattered at lower-level leagues around the world.
That full-time situation, under Coach Bora Milutinovic, gave us a spark. Now we’re perennial World Cup qualifiers and are ranked in the Top 20, sometimes Top 10, in the world.
(Since serving as U.S. Soccer president, Alan Rothenberg, 74, retired from the law firm of Latham & Watkins and founded 1st Century Bank, for which he serves as chairman and CEO. He is also chairman of Premier Partnerships, a sales, marketing and consulting firm specializing in sports, entertainment and public facilities and events. Rothenberg is the Lifetime Director of the U.S. Soccer Foundation.)