WASHINGTON DC (October 12, 2007) USSoccerPlayers — The Family Trecker has been a major off-field name in US soccer for a number of decades. Jerry Trecker was the first winner of the Soccer Hall of Fame Colin Jose Media Award, and his journalist son Jamie has just brought out a book called ‘Love And Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans and Freaks.’
And then there’s Jerry’s brother Jim, who has been involved as journalist, administrator and communications guru at all levels of the game, working for the New York Cosmos during the Pelé era, the Washington Diplomats when Johan Cruyff was there, the US Soccer Federation in the 1990s, and on the organizing committees of both the 1994 and 2002 World Cups.
Now retired, Jim came back to our attention last month when he wrote us a letter in response to a piece about the place of Hispanic players in the US soccer system. We caught up with him by phone at his Rhode Island home to chat further about the issue, as well as his days with the Cosmos, the status of the US game, and whether the World Cup has become an over-marketed event.
USSoccerPlayers: Did you read the Gavin Newsham book ‘Once In A Lifetime,’ and, having worked as the Cosmos’ PR director, did you think it was an accurate portrayal of the Cosmos and how life was with the team?
Trecker: I read the book and saw the movie — I helped a bit with the movie. Honestly, the myth has become bigger than the reality. It was a wild time, there’s no question. It was a wild time in society, and an especially wild time in sports. There’s nothing untrue in the book, but I’m not quite sure we all lived at quite that pace.
USSoccerPlayers: You weren’t out partying until three every morning?
Trecker: A lot of that stuff happened, but there were a lot of late nights sitting at my desk until 11pm as well. There was also a lot of stuff happened that didn’t get in the book. Wild, wild times, with a lot of stuff applicable to that old expression — if it happens when you’re drunk or out of town, it doesn’t count. I was around Joe Namath for seven years working at the New York Jets, and he had that reputation as a Romeo, but if he’d kept up to pace with the rumors, he’d be dead. It wasn’t flashing lights, go-go dancing, hot-panted ladies 24 hours a day — there was some of that, but there was a lot of waiting around in locker rooms and airports.
But it was a marvelous time. It was lightning in a bottle. We were a Superclub long before Manchester United or Chelsea or Barcelona. We had an All-Star Team, but it was a great team, it wasn’t just a bunch of names.
USSoccerPlayers: What did you take from that experience that helped you later on the World Cup organizing committees?
Trecker: When I came to the Cosmos, I presume, though it was never said to me directly, that one of the reasons they reached out to me in late 1975 was that they knew I’d worked with Joe Namath, and they had Pelé, so maybe they thought that was relevant because they needed help dealing with big-time media.
Now to answer the question, what did I take from that into the World Cup? It was a real gut, day-to-day, locker-room understanding of the rhythm of the sport. How the players react, how the public react. Because I didn’t come into the sport as an owner, I’ve almost never sat in tribunes of honor, or been to the cocktail party before the game. I’ve always been a backstage guy, and always someone who’s tried to work hard to understand the organism of the sport, and to help it along wherever possible.
The greatest understanding I took forward was understanding what happens with teams. The World Cup is about teams. Yeah, it’s about marketing, sure. [Laughs] In fact it’s all about marketing nowadays. You can make an argument it’s all about television, you can make an argument it’s all about fans, but at the end of the day it’s about the teams.
USSoccerPlayers: Some say the World Cup has become more commercially bloated as the games themselves have become less entertaining. Do you think that’s true?
Trecker: Not entirely. I would agree with you that the marketing’s become a bit too much. But the same things happens in all the sports I’m familiar with, including cricket and rugby and the American scene — we’ve introduced a minute between innings in baseball so they can sell more commercials. It’s not unique at all for international soccer, and it’s not unique to the World Cup.
Honestly, I think the market and the fans will bear it. Fans are willing to buy tickets for games which have a huge marketing circus around them. I don’t particularly like it, because I guess I like to say that I’m a real purist, and maybe that’s just me getting old, but nevertheless, that’s what modern era sports has become. I could make an argument that I think it’s wrong, but I think that would be a fatuous argument.
Your point about the soccer becoming less entertaining is interesting, though. You put a bit of an equation there — the more money’s gone in, the less entertaining the soccer’s become. I’m not sure that’s fair. I think there may be too much of the cult of the coach. Coaches have become bigger than life, partly through television. How many cutaways do you see of coaches throughout the game? On TV, in its need to get visuals, and its need to get reaction, they tend to cut the coach. The coach makes his move, the coach does this — we’ve kind of forgotten that soccer is the one game where it’s entirely about the players. No plays are being called from the sideline like in football, no signals are being given like in baseball.
It’s not about the coach, but coaches have become big, famous, rich and popular — that’s fine, again, if the market dictates that. But there’s a fear of losing. I’m not sure if it’s really things like ‘there are no midfielders left in the world’ or ‘there’s no left-wingers left in the world’ that have contributed to the game becoming more dull. I think it’s the tremendous financing and the fear of losing.
See how much money is at stake in a Champions’ League match? It’s just human nature.
USSoccerPlayers: So in a way my equation does work…
Trecker: In a roundabout way — it’s not the whole equation, but it’s part of the mix.
USSoccerPlayers: We heard from you in one of our recent Mailbag columns saying that as far as integrating Latinos goes, US Soccer is no further down the road than it was in 1984. Why do you think this issue has been under-addressed for so long by US soccer?
Trecker: I don’t know why it hasn’t been addressed more successfully. Certainly [USSF President Sunil] Gulati has a great understanding of Latin soccer. In the American system, and the way we have it set up, there are so many different spokes on the wheel, and there’s not necessarily a functioning vertical system. There have been a lot of diagrams involved… I’ve seen all that stuff, and I’ve been involved in all the triangles and inverted triangles, and they make sense, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what the practice is in this country, because you’ve got different systems — you’ve got a recreational system, and you’ve got a professional system.
The recreational system’s huge, with millions of kids and thousands of coaches, and I think it’s very hard to push the system fast enough. I don’t think it’s for lack of trying. There’s long been a high Anglo population among coaches who grew the game in this country, and if you threw a hundred Latino coaches into the system every year, it’s still going to take a long time to create an equilibrium. I’d like to see more highly skilled Latino ball-handlers, sure, but that will come.
You have to always remember where we were in 1984 and the semi-pro set-up back then around the National Team, but that was only 23 years ago. Check in the record books and see how many countries have qualified for the last five World Cups. We’ve produced the Tab Ramos’, the Eric Wynaldas and the Landon Donovans, and we’re producing more and more all the time. That production line started some time ago. It’s going to take a little longer for Latinos to get into it. I think there are some core issues around whether Latinos can be found, whether they can afford it… I spent most of my life in New York, and you go down to Central Park on a Sunday and it’s unbelievable — thousands of Latinos are out there playing. They’re playing competitively, but they’re not in a formally recognised league structure. That’s going to change. We’re in a growing phase that I think people are being very, very impatient about.
I understand what Paul Gardner’s been writing about all these years, and I don’t disagree with what he’s been writing about all these years.* I’ve also spent most of my time on the other side of the desk, and know that it’s mighty darned hard to change the system. The club system that the Federation’s now started is a real creative thing to do. It’s a good way to sidestep the youth programs without damaging the youth programs. There’s nothing wrong with four million kids playing soccer, and plucking out the best of those kids in combination with Bradenton and Project 40 – those programs have only been in place for less than a decade. So I’m optimistic about the whole thing. Impatient but optimistic, because I think that slowly but surely things have been put into place.
Will we win a World Cup in the foreseeable future? I don’t know, I think there are 208 countries in FIFA now. How many of those have won the World Cup? Seriously, do you think soccer people are sitting around in Austria or Belgium or Denmark asking, ‘Do you think we’ll win the World Cup?’ Nobody spends time worrying about that stuff. Very few people win the World Cup, it’s a tall order. I actually think we will win the World Cup sooner than a lot of people realize. I haven’t got a clue when, though. It’s not one more step up the ladder, it’s quite a few.
USSoccerPlayers: Have you read your nephew Jamie’s new book?
Trecker: Yes I have, and I thought he did a pretty good job. It’s a book that doesn’t really rely entirely on sports, it tells a much larger tale. I think he’s on to a way to put sports in a societal context.
USSoccerPlayers: What are you up to nowadays?
Trecker: I’m retired, but I’m working on a few small projects such as Pele’s Literacy Initiative, but mainly I’m doing a lot of vegetable gardening and personal travelling. I just got back from two weeks in Turkey. Jerry’s also retired, but he still writes for a local paper in Connecticut, where we grew up.
USSoccerPlayers: How did you both get into soccer?
Trecker: Connecticut happened to be one of the places where soccer was very big in the 50s and early 60s as a high school and college sport. I always had a big love of international culture and other countries, and got interested in soccer as a recreational player. A very poor one at that. But it was my desire all my life to travel and be around people of other cultures and other languages, and what better thing to be involved in for that than international soccer?