The announcement from Zurich, Switzerland, that our country will host the 1994 soccer World Cup is both an invitation to cheer and an order to America's soccer community to go to work.
By awarding the world's second most-prestigious sports spectacle - behind the Olympic Games - to the United States, the International Soccer Federation has confirmed its intention of doing everything possible to bring us into the global soccer community. At the same time, Americans must now resolve the difficulties which have beset the game's development here, or else the 24-team festival will be nothing more than an oddity in the sport's history.There is no doubt that this country can stage a magnificent World Cup. Not only do we have wonderfully modern stadiums, advanced telecommunications and all the other amenities to mount a memorable show, we also have a collection of ethnic communities. Truly, just about every visitor in 1994 can expect a "home team" atmosphere at one of their games.
The soccer just ahead will be of a higher caliber than any ever played in this country. Because the strong countries do everything possible to prepare for the championship, the period between 1991-1994 will be full of opportunities for Americans to see the top sides, who will play exhibition matches here in order to test the conditions they will face in our World Cup.
The chance for our players to learn from observing the best in the world will exist for at least a four-year period. How we utilize that opportunity may determine whether our 1994 American team is able to be anything more than a polite host for the tournament.
The positive aspects of an American World Cup have little to do with the long-term future of the sport in this country, however. If soccer, itself, is to benefit from staging its biggest show in the United States, then the international federation must use the 1994 event as the lever to bring order to the chaos which exists in soccer in this country.
Specifically, World Cup 1994 makes the following demands on America:
-The volunteer-based United States Soccer Federation must become a professional organization, staffed by knowledgeable sports people, not necessarily folks who have "paid their dues" at sandlot or youth soccer.
-The school and college game in this country must be brought under the international federation umbrella, even at the expense of some egos which will stand in the way of such accommodation.
-The American media must be educated about the game and its place in the world. We generally ignore or misrepresent its importance, partly from ignorance, sometimes from a misplaced sense of loyalty to our "own" sports.
-The American player must be made to understand what world-level competition is all about. The recent performance of our national teams, at all levels, suggests that mere improvement is not enough, nor are moral victories.
-And, the U.S. Soccer Federation must, at whatever cost, put a national professional league in place so that our players can play outdoors for a living. The indoor game has amply demonstrated that it is no way to prepare players for international competition. In fact, the very existence of the Major Indoor Soccer League in 1994 seems questionable.
If that list of musts seems daunting consider how Brazil and Morocco, the losers in Monday's showdown, must feel about the United States getting the 1994 World Cup.
Each nation will argue that its soccer interest and pedigree far surpasses ours; doubtless both will believe that the international federation saw the lure of megabuck profits in an American World Cup and voted with its cash registers, not its soccer heart.
The United States Soccer Federation will be in the glare of a global spotlight that will increase in intensity the closer we approach the opening kickoff of the tournament.
And, don't forget, there is an air of unreality to all of this.
A nation without a professional league, with no noticeable interest in the sport, has been chosen to host soccer's greatest jewel in 1994. If the U.S. federation understands just how strange this is, the winners in this amazing lottery will allow themselves just 48 hours for celebration.
Then they had better get to work.