Twenty-one members of the International Soccer Federation's executive committee will decide today whether the 1994 World Cup will be played in the United States, Brazil or Morocco, but it could be that the only vote that counts belongs to a man who will not vote.
Joao Havelange, the powerful president of the Federation Internationale de Football Assn., is expected to have great influence over the committee, either by his support for his home country, Brazil, or by his silence, which would be considered a diplomatic nod toward the United States. Morocco is believed to be a distant third choice of the voters, who are meeting at a hotel near FIFA headquarters.
United States Soccer Federation (USSF) officials, nearing the end of a 16-month campaign to bring the World Cup to the United States for the first time since its inception in 1930, were encouraged earlier this year when Havelange announced that he will not vote, explaining that he must be impartial.
International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain made a similar gesture in 1986. Nevertheless, IOC members subsequently selected his hometown, Barcelona, from among six candidates as the site for the 1992 Summer Olympics.
But in this case, Havelange's withdrawal from the vote was considered a setback for Brazil. It is no secret that Havelange has feuded with the Brazilian Soccer Assn. over the political future of his son-in-law within the federation.
After he surveyed Brazil's official bid in September of last year, Havelange told reporters, "We have to ask ourselves if the people who made this candidate tour are really interested in having it."
At the same time, Havelange had only positive words for the U.S. bid, calling it "entirely praise worthy."
Some who have followed Havelange's 14-year administration of FIFA say that it would appeal to his ego to be considered the man who started a soccer revolution in the United States, which USSF officials contend will occur if the country is granted the World Cup.
Soccer is the world's most popular sport, and its World Cup is the most popular sporting event except for perhaps the Olympics. Held every four years, it includes the host country, the defending champion and 22 other countries that emerge from among more than 100 teams attempting to qualify. The 24 countries in the finals play 52 matches in one month, usually in early summer, to determine a champion.
The 52 matches during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico attracted a record 2.5 million fans and had a worldwide television audience of 12.8 billion, including more than 600 million in 161 countries who watched Argentina defeat West Germany in the final.
FIFA officials consider the United States their last frontier. It is a lucrative one considering the country's potential for marketing and television rights fees.
USSF President Werner Fricker said Sunday that he will emphasize those points to the executive committee preceding the vote in a 30-minute presentation, which includes a videotaped message from President Reagan.
Fricker said he also will point out the advantages of the United States' stadiums, which, for the most part, are more modern than Brazil's and more numerous than Morocco's. Morocco has only two soccer stadiums that seat more than 40,000 spectators.
Of the 18 stadiums viewed by FIFA's inspection team in an April tour of the United States, 12 eventually would be selected as sites for World Cup matches.
FIFA would require some adjustments for virtually all of the stadiums, including the substitution of grass for artificial turf, but Fricker said, "If the World Cup had to take place next year (in the United States) it could be."
Among the stadiums under consideration are the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum.
Although a site for the semifinals and finals probably would not be selected until after the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Fricker said he believes the leading candidates would be the Rose Bowl, Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Fricker said that the USSF does not have an agreement to consider Giants Stadium among the 18 submitted for FIFA's approval but that informal discussions have begun with New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean.
FIFA officials were impressed during the 1984 Olympic soccer tournament with the Rose Bowl, which had the three largest crowds ever for the sport in the United States. That included 101,799 for the final. In all, 1.4 million people watched soccer at four different sites during the Olympics.
Fricker said he believes that enthusiasm for soccer could be recaptured during the World Cup.
Skeptics, or perhaps realists, say that the enthusiasm was less for soccer than it was for the Olympics. They say spectators were attracted to the sport because of the availability of lower-priced tickets.
Fricker said he believes FIFA's primary question about whether to award its greatest prize to the United States is whether the USSF can sell the sport to the sporting public, both during the World Cup and beyond.
He said FIFA also is concerned that it cannot reach an agreement with a television network in the United States to serve as host broadcaster, which would require sending the signal from all 52 matches to other countries.
It might be difficult enough to find a network that would televise the preliminary matches in the United States. During the 1984 Summer Olympics, ABC televised no soccer in the United States and did not provide coverage of all the matches for foreign markets.
Fricker said he is confident that the USSF can put together a consortium of cable networks to meet FIFA's requirements.
But after all is said, the vote might swing on something as rudimentary as which executive committee members' countries will or will not have a competitive edge by playing in the United States.
Since 1962, the site of the World Cup has alternated between Europe and Latin America. The eight executive committee members from Europe probably do not have to be reminded that no team from their continent has ever won in Latin America. They might consider the United States a neutral site.