The 1994 World Cup in the United States had a dreamy quality to it, strangers visiting a strange land to watch a game that transfixed every part of the planet except for the place where its greatest spectacle was being staged.
Many of the supporters who arrived from around the globe were wide-eyed, experiencing a country they knew only from movies and television, forced to fly from match to match because of the country’s vastness, soaking it all in.
Meanwhile, the natives looked upon this odd travelling circus with an arched eyebrow, as foreign, as exotica.
Soccer played in football stadiums – including on real grass (sort of) growing under a dome. Fans who sang and chanted no matter what was actually happening on the field. Those Brazilian guys in the canary yellow were supposed to be awfully good, but in real life, didn’t seem all that magical. And they said a new American league was going to spring from the tournament, though who hadn’t heard that story before. Like all the rest, it would be doomed to failure.
To be fair, that wasn’t everything or everyone. Then, as now, most people’s kids had played the game, so the rules and patterns weren’t entirely alien. And there were certainly pockets of hard-core soccer fans in the United States, including those with strong familial and cultural alliances elsewhere. Italy versus Ireland at Giants Stadium was as much of a treat for the diaspora as it was for those who had made the trip from the Old Country.
By the time the tournament ended, with that dreary final in the Rose Bowl, an efficient but unspectacular Brazil side beating Italy on penalties following a scoreless draw after Roberto Baggio hoofed his chance over the bar, it didn’t really feel as though anything had changed.
Except, that it had…
For the better part of the previous 30 years, there had been an ongoing debate about whether soccer could “make it” in the United States, challenging the traditional team spectator sports. It came closest during the heyday of the North American Soccer League, featuring Pele, Chinaglia et al, and when that collapsed under its own weight, it was seen as the definitive proof of soccer’s failure to take root.
Consider what happened after ’94: the birth of MLS, a stuttering start to be sure, but now firmly established, aggressively expanding, not pretending to be anything other than a local outlet for those who have also been turned on to the Premier League and Champions League and all of the other soccer content that can be accessed instantly from anywhere, anytime; the U.S. Men’s National team becoming a force on the international scene, despite the program’s recent floundering, with a large band of travelling supporters (more Americans bought tickets for this year’s tournament in Russia, for which their team didn’t qualify, than any other national group); the World Cup and Euros becoming major North American television properties; literacy and interest in the sport exploding, especially among Millenials and their generational peers.
Soccer happened in America, without anyone holding a press conference to announce it. It’s upside, it’s potential for growth, is far greater than it is for hockey or football or baseball (basketball is the only thing close). Now, with the triumph of the United Bid for 2026, it is about to catch an enormous wave that may be felt more in Canada than anywhere else.
How do things change here? Canadians will for the first time since 1986 have a chance to wear their own colours and cheer on their own side in a World Cup. That should put a dent in the defeatist culture around the Men’s National Team – a rationally defeatist culture which was a natural byproduct watching heartbreakers like that humiliating 8-1 loss to Honduras in qualifying for the 2014 tournament.
There is an achievable goal now. There will be a plan. There will be added resources, and by next year there will be the Canadian Premier League, which will allow for the development of Canadian players at home – something that MLS was never designed to do. You’d like to hope that the next generation won’t have to make the choice that Owen Hargreaves or Jonathan de Guzman made, forsaking home for a shot to play in the World Cup. Now, it’s no longer an either/or proposition.
From a spectator point of view, even if 10 games spread over three cities doesn’t seem like much, even if the home side could very well be two-and-done, being invited to participate in the most important sporting event in the world rather than simply acting as an interested bystander is going to shift the national sporting conversation.
The Olympics are one thing — and the 2010 Games in Vancouver and Whistler were something else entirely — a true watershed moment.
But this, by any objective measure, is going to be bigger.