The World Cup can be capricious. It is a small sample size of games. It comes at a weird calendar point. One kick of the ball can write or expunge a narrative. The lot of a middling soccer nation can be cast months beforehand by an arduous group draw. The World Cup should define little, but in perception it defines everything, and becomes a touchstone for a nation’s soccer stature.
Heading into the 2014 World Cup, it’s tempting for Americans to look back to 1994. That tournament was a fun, successful lark. Twenty years keeps everything tidy and decimal. However, with the U.S. facing an unforgiving Germany-led group, looking back to 1998 World Cup may be more apropos.
That expedition to France was a fiasco, perhaps the lowest moment in American soccer history. But the failure and subsequent fallout laid the foundation for modern American soccer, both on and off the field. Questions raised in the aftermath are ones U.S. Soccer is still trying to answer, 16 years later.
The Tournament Itself
The U.S. was not a soccer power entering the 1998 World Cup, but clear strides had been made. The team was more accomplished. American teams beat Argentina 3-0 in the 1995 Copa America and Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup. The U.S. also earned a then historic 0-0 qualifying draw against Mexico at Azteca. It was also more experienced. All 22 squad members were playing professional soccer in the tournament buildup. In 1994, that number was six.
The World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, meaning only two would advance from each group. The U.S. was slotted in Group F, with Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran. The Germans were fresh off a Euro 1996 triumph. Yugoslavia, stocked with European club stars, was a perceived dark horse. Predrag Mijatovic had just scored the Champions League-winning goal for Real Madrid. That draw put the odds of the U.S. winning at 200-1. Then U.S.S.F. president Alan Rothenberg joked after the draw that “the only thing that could make it better is if FIFA designates an Iraqi referee.”
The Americans left for France with few expectations. But even those were not met.
Squad morale plummeted. Coach Steve Sampson cut John Harkes from the team. At the time it seemed inexplicable. Twelve years later, it was confirmed this dismissal was for sleeping with Eric Wynalda’s wife. The 3-6-1 that took the field in the first match featured only three players with World Cup experience. Jeff Agoos was shelved for newly naturalized citizen David Regis. Wynalda and Tab Ramos were benched for matches. Alexi Lalas never saw the field.
The Germany match at the Parc des Princes went as anticipated, a 2-0 defeat. Afterward, this was lumped with the subsequent failure. But, at the time, this was not perceived as a bad showing. The U.S. stayed competitive after an early goal, played well in the second half and almost equalized on a Frankie Hejduk header. Germany coach Berti Vogts (now a USMNT advisor) suggested the Americans were “no longer poor cousins.” Sampson said the effort showed how far the U.S. had come since 1994.
Then came Iran. The hostage crisis was a more recent memory in 1998. The Iranian state still actively supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The pairing was perhaps the most politically charged match in World Cup history. On the field, the U.S. were favorites. After the loss to Germany, they needed a win. That did not happen.
Sampson replaced five starters from the Germany match. The U.S. was arguably the better team, but defensive lapses and multiple shots off the woodwork saw the U.S. fall 2-1 and be eliminated from the tournament. The political context enhanced the bitterness, but just considering soccer, this loss was a cataclysm. Losing to a European or South American power was conscionable. But Iran had never won a World Cup match. Nineteen of their 22 players were based in Iran.
The U.S. had lost to a less able, less experienced team. This shifted the conversation to the deficiencies of the American player. To many, they were soft, middle class and had little natural feel for the game. From Ian Thomson in Sports Illustrated . . .
Iran uncovered the inadequacies of U.S. soccer plainly and deliberately. The Iranian players, raised during the 1979 revolution, the ensuing bloody purges by the Ayatollah Khomeini and the eight-year war with Iraq, grew up playing in the streets or on dirt fields with cheap plastic soccer balls. They had no coaching to speak of until their mid-teens and no realistic hope of their national team’s advancing to the world’s greatest stage, yet they persisted. In defeating the Americans for Iran’s first World Cup victory, they exhibited an ear for the game, whereas the U.S. players seemed to be reading from sheet music.
Yugoslavia beat the Americans 1-0 in the final, irrelevant match. Factoring in goal difference for narrative’s sake, the U.S. finished dead last. Players blamed Sampson and borderline revolted. Lalas, ever quotable, crushed him after the team was eliminated.
“It’s rather naive to think that a team that has gone through so much together can basically be rearranged and be expected to play with any consistency and cohesiveness,” Lalas said. “It just doesn’t happen, especially in soccer. … The reality is, consistency comes from playing under a system for an extended period of time and understanding the role you play in that system.
“If this was the master plan, good god, it was pretty masterful. [Sampson’s] got a weird definition of a master plan.”
Tab Ramos was one of multiple veterans who refused to play for the national team again unless Sampson was removed.
“This whole World Cup was a mess,” Ramos said. “If I had to blame people, I’d blame the coaches. They didn’t get the most out of what we had. For me, I’m 31 now, but I can tell you as long as Steve Sampson and (assistant coach) Clive Charles are around, I don’t want any part of the national team.” (Seattle Times, June 26, 1998)
The 1990 and 1994 teams were mostly amateur outfits. The 1998 team was fully professional and the most talented, accomplished and experienced team the U.S. had produced. One could argue the performance was not as terrible as it appeared. But perception was what mattered, the U.S. had failed. The loss sparked a debate about U.S. soccer development, on and off the field. It is one that remains alive today.
How Would The U.S. Develop Better Players?
U.S. Soccer started this discussion before the World Cup, unveiling “Project 2010.” Fueled by $50 million in Nike money, U.S. soccer would overhaul its development program on a grand scale. It was billed as the soccer equivalent of the Apollo Space Program. The goal, more aspirational than literal, was to produce a World Cup winning team by 2010. The turd dropped in France emphasized both the need for such a project and just how much work remained.
Soccer’s paradigm in 1998 was flashy, Ronaldo-led Brazil. American players, to many observers, were the antithesis. They were wooden, they lacked technical skill and, as Thomson pointed out, “seemed to be reading from sheet music.” Rounding up the nation’s best soccer youths and letting them sort themselves out in the Brazilian favelas for a few years was impractical and inhumane. The U.S. would have to find another way.
Some felt Americans were coached too much. Pickup soccer was uncommon. Americans learned the game being monitored and running through cones, an environment to breed competence rather than brilliance. The Boston Globe’s Frank Dell’Appa argued that U.S. players should have far less structure in their development.
Basically, what US players should be doing is juggling the ball like seals every chance they get. At least they should be allowed and encouraged to have fun with the game. This cannot be accomplished in coaching courses or through structured programs. It should occur spontaneously, if youngsters are allowed the freedom to make up their own games and routines. (Boston Globe, June 24, 1998)
Another belief was American players were not being coached well enough. Budding teenage stars had nothing resembling a European club academy. Claudio Reyna noted that “we’re just not close to European standards” in developing players and “it’s going to take a revolution in the way Americans think.” Then AC Milan youth program director Francesco Zagatti believed American players needed to be reared in Europe.
“Since American kids don’t grow up kicking a soccer ball the only way to ripen them is to match them with kids who do.” (USA Today, June 15,1998)
Coaching before that was even bleaker. Here’s how Fox Sports’ Leander Schaerlaeckens described his experience with American youth soccer coaching, in 2013.
So if a player showed up for all of it, which most didn’t because of other social engagements, he or she was getting two hours of soccer per week, four months out of the year. A handful of Latino players — a minority on the team — would work on technique with me after practice for another hour or so and perhaps go on to play in the park. But that constituted the sum total of anybody’s soccer activities.
So why not make the season longer and practice more frequent? Well, the summer was off-limits for school-aged children in an affluent county like ours, where summer camps and exotic vacations are the norm. And nobody seemed to want to play from December to March because of the cold weather — never mind that the rest of the world is playing regardless and jumping into the lead. There scarcely seemed to be the time for the kids to take on any other week-night activities, such was the congestion in their schedules.
The other major systemic issue was know-how. There’s little to be done about almost an entire country being plain new to the sport, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Far too many fathers with no experience with soccer at all act as coaches and have next to nothing of value to offer their players. I heard one such father decide against a substitution because, as he put “I don’t want another left-footer in the midfield.” Another kept calling players over to the sideline in the middle of the ongoing game, made them take a knee and then treated them to incongruous and ill-informed lectures on where to pass the ball that lasted several minutes.
Germany now has the best young talent pipeline in the world. That’s the result of their own youth overhaul begun in the late 1990s, which focused on getting many of the country’s 28,000 coaches with at least a UEFA B-license coaching kids aged 8-14.
Some believed America had great players and just was not finding them. The best American athletes were not choosing soccer. Sampson told the New York Times ”We need to do a better job attracting the best athletes the United States has to offer into the sport of soccer”after the World Cup exit. Rothenberg echoed this, mentioning one of the goals of Project 2010 was finding America’s “9-year-old Ronaldo.”
Somewhere out there we’ve got a 9-year-old Ronaldo, and we’ve got to find him, Rothenberg said. That 9-year-old Ronaldo might be out there, but he might not want to devote himself to soccer.
Sixteen years later, these issues are still unresolved. Soccer is still a fully structured activity. Much of the youth coaching is of poor quality. Though there are outreach programs in urban communities, there remains a significant class barrier to pursuing soccer at a high youth level. U.S. Soccer and MLS have given rise to the IMG Residency Program, Generation Adidas and individual club academies. But these remain nascent, a world away from their European counterparts. There’s still little continuity for how the best U.S. players get from childhood to professional careers. It’s worth noting the best American player to emerge since 1998, Clint Dempsey, arose outside that system.
The U.S. never found the “9-year-old Ronaldo.” The then (purportedly) 9-year-old Freddy Adu never panned out. U.S. Soccer fans may wonder what might have been with Odell Beckham Jr. But there’s a general acknowledgment it’s not that simple. The best athletes in soccer are not necessarily the best soccer players. The American Cruyff would be weedy, 5’8” and not cut out for football or basketball.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s actions since taking the U.S. job have been telling. His strategy has been to skirt around American player development by recruiting Germans and other Europeans with potential American eligibility. He has tried (without success) to get as many American players playing abroad as possible.
Will Soccer Become a “Major” American Sport?
We are a nation of capitalists. Inherent in soccer’s development within the United States is its development as a commercial product. “Making it” has constituted not just competing on an international level, but becoming a commercial competitor for other professional sports. The World Cup has been an essential part of that process, both as a benchmark of soccer’s success and a means to enter mainstream American culture.
The 1994 World Cup was a tremendous success. It was the most profitable World Cup ever. It led all World Cups in both average and total attendance, despite subsequent tournaments having 12 additional matches. TV ratings were about twice what ESPN and ABC anticipated. U.S. group stage matches outdrew the U.S. Open, Wimbeldon and regular season MLB. It proved a phenomenon beyond what most anticipated. Before the tournament, McDonald’s had chosen to build its summer marketing around “The Flintstones Movie.”
This success and attractive advertiser demographics led to substantial American corporate investment. In 1990, Adidas sponsored the U.S. team for $50,000 and equipment. By 1998, the U.S. had a 10-year $120 million deal with Nike. Nike had a $200 million-plus sponsorship deal with the Brazilian national team as well. The American company has even been accused by conspiracy theorists of manipulating the 1998 final.
The 1998 World Cup offered a different and, perhaps, a more accurate reflection of soccer’s domestic popularity. It was shown live on TV and treated as a real sporting event. But it did not have the boost from taking place in the United States. A pre-tournament Harris poll indicated that only 52 percent of Americans knew the World Cup was a soccer tournament and only 19 percent knew it was happening in France. (USA Today, July 9, 1998) Ratings from that World Cup suggest the poll may not have been that off base.
ESPN ratings dipped about 50 percent overall from 1994. The Brazil/France final fell from a 12.4 rating to a 6.9. For comparison, the concurrent MLB All-Star Game drew a 13.3. USA Today’s Sandy Gandy suggested ESPN would have been better off televising “wrestling” or “pro bowling.” (USA Today, July 9, 1998)
Much of this was attributed to the national team performance. The flameout in France was characterized not just as a failure, but, as the Washington Post’s Amy Shipley wrote, a blown opportunity for self-promotion.
No matter how one views the U.S. team’s performance, this much is clear: The United States blew an opportunity for positive self-promotion both on foreign and home soil. For the first time, the United States fielded a World Cup squad featuring 16 U.S. professionals from Major League Soccer, which didn’t exist in 1994. With MLS desirous of attracting foreign stars, the U.S. team did little to sell the quality of the league. And it did little to take advantage of the exposure in the United States: Every World Cup match is being shown on American television. (Washington Post, June 29, 1998)
The fallout was not imaginary. The 2002 and 2006 World Cups came very close to not being televised in English in the United States. No major networks bid on the rights. MLS investors – facing stagnating attendance, staggering losses and two folded teams – formed a subsidiary to buy the rights from FIFA, cover the production costs and ensure the tournaments aired on ESPN.
America’s soccer climate has improved from this nadir. The Internet facilitated soccer fans connecting with each other and the global game. DVRs and the expansion of cable have made live sports programming far more valuable. Fox paid more than $400 million for the rights to 2018 and 2022. Iconic brands such as “the New York Yankees” and “David Beckham” are now buying into MLS.
The English Premier League has become a stable of NBC’s sports programming. Eight clubs in the top two divisions are owned by Americans, including Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. American companies such as Nike, Warrior and Under Armour have equipment deals. General Motors signed a sponsorship deal worth more than $500 million with Manchester United.
Soccer is now moneyed and entrenched in the United States. There’s no danger, with a poor World Cup performance, of the sport fading into obscurity. But questions still linger about how “American” the soccer revolution is. The U.S. has not had a soccer “Michael Jordan,” or anything close. The mainstream reaction when Clint Dempsey returned from abroad was non-existent. MLS had a 29 percent decline in ratings last year. The MLS Cup Final earned a 0.44 rating, approximately the same as a TBS rerun of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” What happens when ESPN has little incentive to sell the sport after 2016 and the head of the company is not an unabashed fan?
Lesson For 2014
There is a very real chance the 2014 World Cup goes poorly for the United States. Potentially “1998” bad. Germany has, man for man, the best team in the world. Portugal has the world’s best player. Ghana, the weakest opponent, is stocked with Champions League talent, and eliminated the U.S. in both 2006 and 2010. Not to mention the U.S. has the most arduous travel schedule in the tournament. That’s before you get to U.S. defensive frailties.
We know from history that four hours or so will feel decisive. Assessments in the immediate aftermath will be swift, sweeping and harsh. Klinsmann may be ridiculed. The entire soccer enterprise in the United States may come under indictment. Soccer skeptical newspaper columnists will rub their palms together with glee and skewer the sport with one sentence paragraphs. It won’t be fun.
But, it’s important to remember the World Cup can be deceptive. Soccer, on the international and professional level, has as firm of a footing as it has ever had in this country. The U.S. squad is as talented and deep as it has ever been. Competent, experienced club players were left off even the provisional 30-man team. It may be in fits and starts. It won’t quite feel like it for a few weeks. But U.S. Soccer is moving forward.
[Photos via Getty]
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