‘94 World Cup Giving Soccer a Boost in U.S.
It takes more than a little imagination to picture Al Colone’s dream. But when he stands among 61 wooded acres in upstate New York he sees the complex that will house the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
He points to where the 10,000-seat outdoor soccer stadium will go and where the two indoor fields are planned.
He wants to have seven other fields fashioned on the site, too, along with dormitories for players and a huge museum to display the memorabilia of the sport that’s now housed in a one-story building in downtown Oneonta.
Colone has been lugging around an artist’s rendering of the $10 million project for most of this decade, practically since he became director of the new Hall of Fame in 1981.
Now that the land has been purchased and clearing and contouring work has begun Colone can’t hide his enthusiasm about the Hall of Fame and the national soccer center that he’d like finished by the middle of next decade.
It takes the same kind of imagination to envision the popularity Colone and others say soccer is on the verge of achieving in the United States.
“You’ve got the youth soccer programs. You’ve got stability in the pros,” said Colone. “You’ve got a national federation which for the first time since 1913 is paying its bills, marketing, doing publicity and public relations. You’ve got a growing interest in the sport on the part of the American press. The ingredients for the first time are all there to make this game work in this country.”
Others agree that after a century of being ignored, if not ridiculed, by the American sporting public, soccer is ready to take its place among major sports in this country.
But unlike the heady days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Pele and the North American Soccer League filled stadiums and grabbed headlines, soccer’s proponents see the game making a slower, steadier and ultimately more lasting impression on the American sporting consciousness this time around.
“Once upon a time, when you were talking about soccer with a group of people in the country, ethnic accents were thick in the air,” said American Soccer League Chairman Clive Toye, who signed Pele and other foreign stars to play in America as chairman of the New York Cosmos.
“Now the converts, the Americans, who are involved in soccer are by far in the majority. ... When you have plain, ordinary, unvarnished, indigenous Americans who didn’t bring the game with them from another country but who love it, then you know full well the future of soccer is assured in this country.”
Optimistic talk among soccer advocates usually keeps coming back to the same two points:
--More young Americans now play the game than ever before.
In 1973-74, studies showed there were 200,000 youth soccer players in the United States, according to spokesman John Polis of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based United States Soccer Federation. Today, an estimated 5 million youths play.
“Soccer is a huge, huge sport in the United States,” Polis said. “With most kids now, soccer is the first team sport they’ll play -- not baseball or football.”
Running a youth soccer program can also be cheaper for municipalities than football or baseball leagues, both in equipment costs and in liability insurance premiums. Texas, Florida, North and South Carolina, Connecticut and New York are just a few of the states where youth soccer programs are especially popular, Colone said.
--The United States will host the World Cup soccer championships in 1994.
These playoffs are followed in much of the 150 nations around the world that play soccer with the same kind of enthusiasm Americans show for the World Series or the Super Bowl.
American soccer advocates are unanimous in their belief that staging the big event on American soil will dramatize the excitement of international soccer competition to both sports fans and the outstanding young athletes who still opt overwhelmingly to play sports other than soccer in the United States starting in their teen-age years.
For a time, the North American Soccer League gave Americans a taste of international play until the league, as Toye put it, “committed suicide by a series of incredibly inept ownership decisions.”
Rick Davis, a former Cosmos player who at age 30 is still a mainstay of the U.S. squad trying to qualify for the 1990 World Cup championship, said he got “wrapped up” like many others in believing the success of the NASL had positioned soccer to become the “sport of the 1980s.” By the middle of this decade, however, he said it had become painfully clear to all soccer fans that the promise was illusory.
“I think that we were enjoying a very artificial success,” said Davis, considered one of the top American-born soccer players ever. “I think we could have done some things differently, but the bottom line was that we were enjoying an unrealistic amount of support. It had become like a fad to go to a Cosmos game and the fad died.”
Professional franchises these days may not draw crowds of 50,000 or more as some NASL teams did, but Davis said they are healthier financially and better run than most of their NASL counterparts.
The United States Soccer Federation is sponsoring seven national teams in a range of age groups as a way of improving the quality of American players and getting them experience in what Toye referred to as “something rather magical called international competition.”
Davis says the difference between the players now on the national team and those when he first played internationally for the United States in the late 1970s is “almost like night and day.”
“The players today are astronomically better,” he said.
Yet the question remains if the American public will really show it cares.
Viewer ratings for the U.S. national team’s qualifying games for the 1990 World Cup championships in Italy have consistently been “quite low,” according to Mike Soltys, a spokesman for the cable sports network ESPN which is televising the matches.
“The participation level hasn’t necessarily transferred to interest in the game on television,” Soltys said. “That’s what they used to say 10 years ago, that when all these people who were playing the game came of age, you’d see this big boom in viewership. Well, it just hasn’t happened yet. Maybe the World Cup (in 1994) will have a very positive effect.”