By J Hutcherson – US Soccer Players - On October 4, 1977 former Harvard professor and Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was named chairman of the NASL’s Board of Governors. The position carried no salary, but it did allow Kissinger a voice in U.S. Soccer, and he used it to promote a U.S. bid for the 1986 World Cup.
At the time, the World Cup alternated between Europe and South America. In 1974 FIFA had awarded the 1986 World Cup to Colombia, but infrastructure problems threatened Colombia’s ability to hold a successful World Cup. Realizing that the chances of a World Cup in Columbia were slim, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and the United States presented themselves as alternatives for the 1986 tournament. With Kissinger as the de facto leader of the bid, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the NASL prepared a bid.
For the North American Soccer League, the World Cup was a lifeline. Facing extreme franchise instability, loss of revenue, and increasing player salaries, the prospect of a World Cup on American soil was thought to have the ability to stabilize the league until 1986, with the Cup fostering a new set of fans to rejuvenate the league.
Unfortunately FIFA had other ideas and after Brazil backed out, they promptly rejected the Canadian and American bid in favor of Mexico. Outraged, Kissinger and his committee petitioned FIFA for another chance, asking them to visit the United States after they inspected Mexico.
On April 7, 1983 Kissinger, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Indiana University coach Jerry Yeagley spoke before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism on behalf of a resolution by New Jersey representative James Florio calling for Congressional support for the U.S. World Cup bid.
Kissinger argued that “the one event that would sweep the U.S. into the world sport of soccer would be for us to host the World Cup in 1986.” Pele added that he had dedicated his life to soccer and his dream was to see it prosper in the U.S. Beckenbauer spoke of the international importance of the Cup.
“Once the Americans understand the magnitude of a World Cup and identify with their own national team, the rest of the process will follow an inevitable path until the United States is a recognized world soccer power. The U.S. is a world power in whatever field they are intent on being one, and a World Cup held right here will make them intent on being one in soccer.”
The committee was not impressed and chose to not ask for a special congressional session to pass legislation calling for support of a U.S. World Cup in 1986.
To no one’s great surprise, a month later, the 1986 World Cup was awarded to Mexico.
Kissinger’s bid for the 1986 World Cup faced several obstacles. For one, the United States was not a South American country. At least Mexico was hispanic, but to move a South American World Cup to the United States would have resulted in potential boycotts by the South American nations.
FIFA called attention to the problem of logistics for a World Cup in the U.S. After all, the bid called for venues on the east and west coast, resulting in much longer travel times than the competition was used to. The preparations for the 1984 Olympic soccer tournament in Los Angeles did little to allay these fears, with appropriate venues for international soccer hard to come by. Surely if a major world event confined to one metropolitan area was giving U.S. organizers trouble, imagine the logistical nightmare of an international tournament held at venues thousands of miles apart from each other would create.
Of course, the real reason Kissinger’s bid failed was more personal than logistics. After all, Mexico had hosted the World Cup in 1970. It appears that FIFA was out to teach U.S. Soccer and the NASL a lesson in who was in charge of the game. In 1981 FIFA had threatened to outlaw the NASL and suspend the U.S. Federation for changing FIFA rules, in particular moving offsides from the halfway line to 35 yards, allowing an extra substitution, and using a shootout to decide tied games. The NASL never fully complied with FIFA’s mandate, at one point threatening to take them to court.
With the U.S. Soccer Federation siding with the NASL, FIFA had to either dismiss the United States and it’s domestic league, or allow the league to flaunt the international rules of the game. By deciding to allow the NASL to continue using their own rules without international sanction, FIFA lost. When the same federation and league came to FIFA two years later asking for the World Cup, FIFA got its revenge.