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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—The quadrennial story of whether soccer will ever "make it" in the United States is, as far as I'm concerned, dead. Sure, like those cicadas that emerge every 17 years, the World Cup is an occasion for a dwindling number of doofus luddites —the collective vestigial tail of the American media—to proudly trumpet their dislike, or ignorance, of the game. But any sports fan with a pulse was riveted by Team USA's second-half comeback tie against tiny Slovenia on Friday. I was in the stadium, among the fans, but I've heard from plenty of people back home who were mesmerized, energized, and ultimately outraged by the game. Without going all Eduardo Galeano here, soccer can move the soul.
Twelve years ago, American soccer was a much different position both at home and abroad. At the 1998 World Cup in France, the Americans finished dead last of the 32 teams, the low point being a dreadful loss to Iran. * During that tournament, I asked Sunil Gulati—then the deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer and now the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation—about the United States' place in the soccer world. Despite successfully hosting the 1994 World Cup, the United States, Gulati admitted then, received little respect on or off the field, especially from the game's traditional powers. European soccer executives reflexively dismissed the USA as a joke.
After two games in the 2010 World Cup, it's fair to say the U.S. national team—and American soccer more proudly—is no longer the subject of widespread international mockery. "No one with the exception of a few English tabloids—and maybe less so [after the Yanks' comeback 1-1 tie in Rustenberg on June 12]—takes us as a joke," Gulati told me in his apartment suite in Johannesburg's tony Sandton neighborhood. "Am I sitting here saying we're the Premier League in the MLS, or that our national team is as good consistently as Argentina's game in and game out, or that soccer is woven into the American fabric the same way it is in Brazil? Those things are not true. What I am saying is that we've made as much progress if not more than anyone else in the world in a number of important areas on the field and off the field, and the potential for American soccer is unlimited given the size of the country, given the wealth of the country, given the demographics of the country. We're getting closer to where we're fully accepted in the elite."
The United States, though, still hasn't quite secured a place at soccer's adults' table. Last July, Gulati says, he joined Sepp Blatter, the head of the sport's international governing body FIFA, at a banquet the night before the final of the regional Gold Cup tournament at Giants Stadium. In a speech, Blatter made a little joke about the United States, which had recently surrendered a 2-0 halftime lead to Brazil in the finals of the Confederations Cup, losing 3-2. "I have to remind the U.S. federation that the game consists of two halves," Blatter said. Chuckle, chuckle.
Meeting Blatter the next morning, Gulati spun that joke by telling the FIFA boss that American soccer is starting the second half of a 50-year plan. The first half began in 1984, when soccer sold out the Rose Bowl at the profitable Los Angeles Olympics, demonstrating that Americans will pay to watch big-event games. (That was also the year the North American Soccer League bit the dust, but FIFA never liked the NASL anyway.) The United States in 1988 won a bid to host a World Cup; qualified for the tournament in 1990; won the first women's World Cup in 1991; hosted the men's tournament in 1994; formed Major League Soccer in 1996; hosted the dramatic, sports-bra-baring women's World Cup in 1999; reached the quarterfinals of the 2002 men's tournament; and qualified for a fifth straight men's World Cup in 2006. The first half ended in 2009, when the United States nearly won its first major global title—that loss to Brazil—and David Beckham deplaned in L.A.
For a sport with a bumpy history stateside, that's a pretty good half. FIFA's longstanding desire for more—for instance, a fall-winter-spring playing schedule for MLS that conforms with most of the rest of the world, and a system of club promotion and relegation—are projects for the next 25 years, Gulati told Blatter. "In the second half, we'll do some of the things you're talking about," he said.
FIFA's poobahs are keen for America's growing soccer revenue to grow even more quickly; they'd love for the USA to rival England, Spain, and Italy as a destination for the world's best players and their multimillion-dollar salaries and transfer fees. Gulati, meanwhile, is a pragmatist. An economics professor at Columbia when he's not performing his soccer duties, he knows soccer will continue its upward curve but that it takes decades to create a mass sporting culture.
The USA-Slovenia game supports Gulati's analogy: If you consider that just 20 years ago the Yanks qualified for their first World Cup since 1950, fielding a team that included collegians, the on-field progress has been astounding. Sure, there are still some qualitative differences in skill between the Americans and, say, the Dutch, but the U.S. national team can compete with the soccer elites now. Don't think the 2-2 result against Slovenia—population 2 million—is embarrassing. Global soccer is increasingly competitive; individual games can be fluky. At this tournament, Switzerland has beaten Spain, and Serbia has beaten Germany. And woe to be English after the game's codifiers were tied by Algeria on Friday.
On-field acceptance is largely psychological, conferred by long stretches of winning. Most-recent performances notwithstanding—small sample size—the current soccer elite, Gulati says and I'd agree, includes eight nations: Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, and Spain. After that, take your pick: Portugal? Paraguay? Ghana? Ivory Coast? Chile? Paraguay? Serbia? Cameroon? The United States? It may be hard for We're-No.-1 Americans to comprehend, but inclusion on that list is major progress. "Twenty years ago it was, we don't belong on the field," Gulati says. "Now it's, we don't belong in the winner's circle yet. No one is taking us for granted, I guarantee you that."
The world of FIFA, like that of the International Olympic Committee, is a byzantine business governed largely by white European men of a certain age. Rewards as disparate as hosting a World Cup or the referees' tournament assignments are a product of horse-trading, deal-making, and alliance-forming. (In his book, Foul! The Secret World of FIFA; Bribes, Vote Rigging, and Ticket Scandals, British journalist Andrew Jennings writes that FIFA also has been rife with corruption and conflicts of interest.) For a country like the United States, long considered an outsider in soccer—Europeans for years derided its barbaric lack of a soccer culture while also asking how they can tap into our deep-pocketed sports market—winning is a corollary to influence.
Gulati can be blunt, but also politically astute. He and other American soccer executives have worked FIFA meeting rooms to slowly expand the country's influence. More than 20 Americans sit on FIFA committees—from the decision-making Executive Committee to the Fair Play and Social Responsibility Committee (though not the Football Committee, headed by Franz Beckenbauer, or the Marketing and Television Advisory Board, even though U.S. companies pay FIFA more than any other country for TV rights and sponsorships). A quarter-century ago, the United States was on maybe one committee.
Does that matter? If a country wants something from FIFA, it needs help. For the United States, that means the next six months are what Gulati considers "in many ways the most important in the history of the federation." The United States has a good team attempting to prove it belongs, has visibility and leverage thanks to ESPN's and Univision's $425 million in rights payments for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and has a bid to host either the 2018 or, more likely, 2022 World Cup. "I don't like the phrase tipping point, but I think we've got an opportunity here," Gulati says.
On Excel and PowerPoint, the U.S. bid has it all: stadiums, infrastructure, marketing, television, ticket sales; the bid lists more than 5 million seats available for games, 40 percent more than any other World Cup host is offering. That's a lot of revenue for FIFA, which takes all income from the event and then reimburses the host. Plus, the bid promises no public spending on stadiums, which, after the costs endured by South Africa to build potential white elephants, should be welcomed.
And, as you might expect, the U.S. federation has produced a slick video, narrated by Morgan Freeman, highlighting not just America's sports splendor but its diversity. (The video has been shown publicly only once; Gulati screened it for me.) Hyphenated American soccer fans say, "Bring it to my country" and "My country loves this game" in Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Polish, and other languages. The message: Forget the old target market of Odyssey-driving soccer moms and dads. This is an international footballing nation.
It's a tactic designed to appeal to FIFA's polyglot 24-member executive committee, which will select the next two World Cup hosts in December. So is the letter from Bill Clinton that Gulati slipped under the suite door of each Executive Committee member; the former president said he hoped to meet each of them in South Africa. Nothing impresses a privileged foreigner like a handshake from Clinton, who is the honorary chairman of the bid's star-studded board. It also didn't hurt that Vice President Biden attended the USA-England game and met with a group of FIFA officials, including Blatter and the head of the 54-nation African confederation.
Does the combination of business and political firepower make the United States a lock? Not by a long shot. In international sports, it's not always what you do; it's whom you impress, or promise, or pay. When CONCACAF—the 35-nation soccer federation for North America, Central America, and the Caribbean—met recently, it invited all nine World Cup bidders to make a pitch. When the African federation gathered, its "congress" was sponsored by the bid group from Qatar—which was the only bidder allowed to make a presentation.
Beating Algeria in Pretoria on Wednesday will send the U.S. team into the second round of the World Cup (a draw might, too). It will also give Gulati and other U.S. soccer execs more time to schmooze and maneuver from a position of strength. In American soccer's second half, Bill Clinton might turn heads, but winning games is what opens minds, and doors.
Correction, June 22, 2010: This piece originally stated that the United States concluded its stint at the 1998 World Cup by losing to Iran. The loss to Iran came in the U.S. national team's second of three games. (Return to the corrected sentence.)