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Football goes Stateside: The 1994 FIFA World Cup - Part 1

Looking at how the Football World Cup came to the United States in 1994 and with it started the growth of the sport in the country.

Lothar Matthäus puts Germany 1-0 up against Bulgaria in the quarterfinals, Giants Stadium

The ‘90s were an unbelievable time to be alive. A heady, fast moving atmosphere characterised a fair part of Europe as the new decade rapidly dispensed with any hangover from the 80s in remarkable circumstances.

Behind The Iron Curtain, things were falling apart in a sensational maelstrom of violence and political change. The Eastern bloc had come undone at the seams, and many of the former Soviet economies were almost ruined. The common man struggled to put food on his table and spare cash in his pocket even as acres and acres of former state-controlled industrial sprawls were swallowed up by opportunistic businessmen.

Further south, things took an even more unpleasant turn. The Balkans were the setting for political instability and bloodshed; even as civil war and gross abuse of power raged in Central Asia, Yugoslavia disintegrated like a soggy biscuit, what with ethnic strife playing havoc in Bosnia and Croatia.

There is an air of depression to this picture, an unfeeling environment that expressed beautifully the futility of it all, the thoughts and emotions that you would have conveniently pushed to the back of your mind, but which the scene in front of you constantly pushed to the forefront of your consciousness.

And, with the cold air seizing you hard, threatening to cross the threshold of felony, with the sky grey overhead, and the grass crunchy underfoot, you look up and say, “The apocalypse is coming”.

A quick cast of perspective across the pond, however, reveals a very different story – one which, by the way, is one of the most monumental developments in football in the 1990s.

A disastrous early bid

Which is funny, because it actually happened in the 80s. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) had, it was rumoured, been angling for World Cup hosting rights going as far back as 1986, although the president Gene Edwards claimed that 1994 was their year.

A window opened up briefly in 1982, however, with Colombia relinquishing the right to host the 1986 World Cup due to a lack of ‘world-class’ stadiums. American officials wanted that World Cup desperately, given that the North American Soccer League (NASL) had fallen off a cliff with the retirement of Pele and the authorities were looking for a gigantic syringe to give withering interest in professional football a shot in the arm.

It was an unmitigated disaster for the USSF, however, as the behaviour of America’s football regulating body was embarrassingly petulant. Mexico were eventually awarded that World Cup and the USSF claimed an agreement had been struck up in secret between their neighbours and FIFA. This, after wild threats, baseless allegations and loud complaints about every decision that did not go in their favour.

No matter, as another chance came with a new administration at FIFA in 1987 and this time, the USSF behaved in a much more professional manner.

A renewed second attempt – and finally success

The USA’s opponents for this bid were Brazil and Morocco. Brazil, a traditional heartland of football, its national team more decorated than a Christmas mantelpiece, were favourites to be selected for the honour. But this time, the USSF had the backing of a 381-page dossier that cost them half a million dollars to put together.

Besides items like tickets, marketing, transportation options and a list of potential venues, it also included a set of federal government guarantees that would allow delegations from countries like Iran and Iraq to obtain visas for the duration of the tournament. It was clear that they were serious.

Eventually, confirmation arrived. At the Movenpick Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland on July 4, 1988 (conveniently enough), the USA was officially awarded the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

There was still an unhealthy amount of suspicion and a number of conspiracy theories regarding the validity and openness of the acceptance of the USSF’s bid, but the show was well and truly on the road.

A questionable judgement call?

The reaction to the news was mixed, to put it kindly. Several organisational and cultural queries were raised regarding the selection of America as a World Cup venue, a questionable call that raised appropriate concerns.

Football was firmly entrenched behind a number of sports in the pecking order of American consciousness. A lack of respect afforded to the sport was one thing, a lack of interest was quite another. The foundations for Major League Soccer were laid the year prior to the World Cup, although the competition itself only began in 1996.

A league structure in its infancy was bad enough, but it was compounded by a football experiment that had gone down in flames ten years prior. The NASL had, just about, stayed afloat in the years following Pele’s retirement but ceased operations in 1984 due dwindling attendances and a lack of interest in the sport.

A flimsy base to build on was matched by cultural problems in football going Stateside.

Quintessentially American sports such as basketball, baseball, ice hockey and American football were ideal targets for advertisers since they were played in short, sharp bursts, which left the intervening minutes prime advertising fodder. Football, as the world knew it, was played in two halves of 45 minutes apiece, and longer passages of play were common, as opposed to a machine gun style approach to presenting sport. Hardly the type of thing to fit in with the American corporate mindset.

A lack of interest could also be put down to the non-appearance of the American team on the world stage. The USA had not qualified for a World Cup since 1950 (when they had recorded a famous 1-0 win over England), and why, wondered the American public, should we care this time round?

Stanford was one of nine World Cup venues in the USA in the summer of 1994 

Furthermore, in such a vast country, with venues spread out in far-flung corners, travelling was going to be a tough grind for both the players and their supporters.

Another curiosity of USA ’94 is how disconcerting the actual games must have felt to European viewers and aficionados used to watching European football. Most venues were usually occupied by American football teams (both college and professional) and, in keeping with trend, were absolutely gargantuan, regularly holding 80,000 fans, a far cry from Europe where even many of the ‘big’ stadiums would hold about 40,000 or less.

This was no doubt a curious misfit, as it was proved on live television, and the kickoff times were also moved around to accommodate European audiences. Bad idea.

America in the middle of the summer was hardly the ideal place to place football. As a result, temperatures hit unbearable highs, with the soaring mercury alternately accompanied by dry conditions and high humidity.

The selection of venues in Florida was especially baffling, not unlike the logic behind the selection of Manaus for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. For the intense heat and humidity made games as much a contest of physical endurance as of technical skill and tactical brilliance.

The silver lining

Poor selection for the players and fans it may have been, but USA ’94, not unlike Italia ’90 before it, prospered from clear blue skies and generous helpings of sunshine. That’s because the photographs from USA ’94 are absolutely splendid.

The intense summer sunshine may have been inhospitable for some, but it was a gift from the heavens for the setting, a shower of golden light which only served to highlight the occasion and lent a certain vintage to the photos.

You are transported back in time to a different era, a bright, exciting time when Nirvana were playing Unplugged, the WWE were preparing for SummerSlam, Bill Clinton was President, and there was an unshakeable feeling in the that this was going to be a tournament of exploration and of discovery in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

It was a tournament that seems frozen in time, the pictures highlighting every miniscule detail, every muscle contracting in the thigh, every drop of sweat on the brow, every ripple in the shirt, every strand of hair tossed around by a frantic goal celebration thanks to the glorious sunshine.

It was a time when you could watch The X-Files and Seinfeld every week and not worry about a thing in the world, a time when you could trade cassette tapes without the slightest hint of awkwardness, a time when you could not know what a GPS was and still get around town.

It was a tournament that lends a feel to its backdrop like very few before and no other since. It was a tournament where the advertising hoardings were the domain of Snickers, Canon, Fujifilm, Philips, Opel and McDonalds instead of Nike and PlayStation. You realised that this was it; this was 1994 and the World Cup was happening in the USA.

The tournament officially began on June 17, 1994 and suddenly, it dawned on us. The World Cup was on.

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