World Cup: Foothold for the Goldfish

Gerard Wright in Phoenix finds the game is at last taking firm root in the US
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The Independent Online
TWO FACES of football in America, four years on from hosting the World Cup.

On one side of the country, in a distant suburb of eternally sunny Phoenix, Arizona, a group of five- and six-year-olds are being put through their paces by their coach, a father of one of the team whose first sporting love is the NFL's Phoenix Cardinals.

Meet the Hercules Goldfish, whose name was jointly decided by the boys and girls in the team. There are eight teams in their competition, in the comfortable, upper middle-class enclave of Fountain Hills. There are so many kids like them playing the game - 13.4 million according to the US Soccer Industry Council - that their parents have become a political constituency unto themselves, "the soccer moms" ardently wooed by Bill Clinton during the 1996 presidential election.

On the other side of the nation, at the Robert F Kennedy Stadium, former home of the Washington Redskins, Alan Rothenberg, the 59-year-old Los Angeles lawyer and svengali of modern American soccer, announces that he wants to see an American World Cup victory in his lifetime - which it would appear has another 12 years to run. A fortnight before the United States appear in their third consecutive World Cup, Rothenberg launches a $50m plan which aims to put the trophy in American hands in 2010.

As a concept, it flies in the face of the logic, history and culture of the world game. The numbers, though, are too imposing to ignore, as indeed are the names behind the money, Nike and the ubiquitous International Management Group.

Some examples:

l The 94 World Cup attracted average crowds of 68,000, 8,000 better than the previous best.

l When the United States and Brazil played an emotional 1-1 draw on 4 July four years ago, the television ratings were the equivalent of traditional mega-events like the NBA finals.

l A new team was this year introduced to Major League Soccer, the Miami Fusion. The franchise fee was $20m.

l As well as the 13.4 million children, seven million adults play.

The United States remains the game's sleeping giant. It's just that no one has figured out how to make the wake-up call.

The country stirred, stretched and briefly awoke for those magical four weeks in 1994, but has slumbered since. Major League Soccer began in 1996, when the wave of World Cup-inspired enthusiasm had become a ripple. Nevertheless, in its first year, the average attendance was 17,500, comfortably ahead of the projected 10-12,000. Last year the average dropped to 14,500. Halfway through the 1998 season, the games attract around 15,000 spectators each.

The game thrives in some areas, struggles in others, mirroring the country's ethnic make- up. In Washington DC, a Bolivian stronghold, 46,000 watched the US team's last home international, a 0-0 draw against Scotland. In New England, with its pockets of Italian and Portuguese families, both MLS and international matches are invariably well-patronised. The Chicago Fire, the other new franchise, can draw on a substantial Polish population. In Los Angeles, where the 100,000 who attended the 1984 Olympic soccer final first alerted the world to the game's possibilities in the United States, the Galaxy have a massive reservoir of Hispanic fans, and were watched by 28,000 in their last match.

In mid-western Columbus, Ohio, on the other hand, the attendance was just 11,000 on the same weekend for a game against San Jose, while Tampa Bay, Florida, home of a brand-new baseball team, attracted 8,300 for a defeat by DC United.

American soccer is an enigma. It is the nation's most popular participatory game, but remains viewed strictly as a children's pursuit. For its administrators, the challenge is to transform the enthusiastic participation of children, into an interest in the professional game when they become adults. Rothenberg's pounds 50m scheme, aims, among other things, to complete that transformation.

Under the scheme, the most skilled children will be sent to the IMG-owned Bollettieri (Nick, the tennis coach) Soccer Academy in Florida for full-time training and education. From there, they can bypass the college system and turn professional, with Major League Soccer and the national federation picking up education costs.

In one area, the United States already lead the way. Their women's team are regarded as the best in the world; ditto the team's star, Mia Hamm. Next year, they will play their World Cup here. As yet, though, no mention has been made by the US authorities of looking inward to discover the secrets of their success.