The Day the USSF Was Born

In trying to discern the nature of the realtionship between FIFA ("We are like the United Nations, only more powerful" - Sepp Blatter) and the USSF you really have to go back into the mists of time.

Which in this case means the early 1980's.

Phil Woosnam, the Commissioner of the red-ink-bleeding NASL, had a preposterous idea: applying to FIFA for the 1986 World Cup.

He figured that the media attention and average-fan interest it would generate would likely bleed over to the NASL, giving that league a boost it desperately needed.

Unfortunately, when Colombia - the clear frontrunner for the Cup - dropped out of the running, the tournament was awarded to Mexico. FIFA was interested in the US, but needed the money too much to risk putting the thing in the non-soccer-loving USA.

Shortly thereafter, perhaps in part because he had put so much effort behind the failed WC bid, Woosnam was replaced. Not that it mattered all that much - the league only had another two years to live.

So Woosnam, a former Welsh national who had briefly coached the US National Team, accepted an offer to become the Marketing Director for USSF, in which position he went right on lobbying for an American World Cup, for which the next possible rotation would be 1994.

He enlisted the help of two old freinds from NASL days, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, both of whom were instrumental in giving the US petition legitimacy.

Finally, FIFA was persuaded and awarded the 94 Cup to the US, with the now well-known caveat that the US agree to start a domestic Division 1 soccer league.

(Another agreement that FIFA insisted on was that after the tournament Beckenbauer was to be named Technical Director for US Soccer; I have no idea what happened to that one.)

Anyway, with the 1994 World Cup duly awarded to the US, FIFA began trying to contact USSF President Werner Fricker in order to start the advance planning necessary to conduct such an enormous event.

Fricker, a notoriously imperious and distant - some would say tyrannical - Hungarian immigrant, told them to pound sand. It was his tournament and he would run it his way. He refused to meet with the FIFA communications and event people, and finally even stopped taking FIFA's phone calls.

This of course scared the bejesus out of FIFA President Joao Havelange and freinds over in Switzerland. The World Cup, the biggest single sporting event in the world, soccer's number one international showcase and, not incidentally, the source of about 95% of the money FIFA ran on, was in the hands of some amateur in Chicago who wouldn't even talk to them.

Back then, US Soccer was still very much an old boys club. It consisted of a pretty spotty youth division, the ethnically dominated Amateur division and the indoor MISL. It was a shoestring operation running a sport nobody much cared about.

Nonetheless, Fricker, who knew literally nothing about running much of anything, started negotiating marketing and television contracts with various entities, and refused to discuss them with FIFA or accept any input whatsoever. He told them that he was not legally required to go through them for anything, and he didn't intend to.

FIFA found themselves completely shut out. In fact, pretty much the only soccer-connected person in the US who would talk to them was a lawyer in LA named Alan Rothenberg.

Rothenberg, who had briefly owned part of two NASL teams in LA, had been an otherwise obscure mediation attorney until he was tapped by the late great Peter Uberroth to be the Commissioner of Soccer for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Nobody expected much. Did the Olympics really have soccer? Did anyone in the US care? Mostly, they figured they'd be happy if it ended up not losing too much money.

Instead, Rothenberg made the Olympic Soccer Tournament the most widely-watched event in the games. More people bought tickets and attended the soccer venues than any other single sport and, not coincidentally, soccer was one for the top five moneymakers in the games.

Furthermore, in his role as head of Olympic soccer, he ended up working very closely with FIFA's #2 man, the newly appointed FIFA General Secretary; a man named Josepp "Sepp" Blatter.

So when the problems with Fricker began, Blatter reached out to his old pal Al, who tried to give them some advice and assistance but none of it mattered: nobody could get through to Fricker.

Then Blatter noticed that the USSF Presidency was up for election in 1990. There was a challenger, USSF's Treasurer Paul Stiehl, who had been campaigning heavily for over a year, but except for the MISL, who would have voted for anyone at all rather than Fricker, he really wasn't making much headway.

So a mere ten days before the election, Sepp Blatter called Rothenberg and talked him into running against Fricker.

Now, as we all know, FIFA intereference with National Association elections is absolutely forbidden, by statute and by tradition. It just wasn't done.

FIFA didn't care. They got on the phones and started twisting arms. Money suddenly appeared for Rothenberg's campaign warchest. Delegates were deluged with phone calls and letters and personal appeals.

Not that it took a whole lot of begging. Except for his old pals in the US Amateur division. Guys like Bob Gansler and Walt Chyzowych, who were going to get to help Fricker run the World Cup as their own private little party. What fun.

So in a mere ten days Rothenberg went from not even being in the running to being the odds-on favorite. It got to the point that at 6:20 AM on the day of the voting, Stiehl got a call from the FIFA Director of Marketing, telling him that the deal was down and if he was smart he'd toss in with Rothenberg to help make it as unanimous as possible.

Stiehl was outraged. He went to the meeting and gave an impassioned speech about how he'd just discovered that FIFA was trying to influence the USSF election.

His speech was met with stunned silence. He was pretty much the only person in the room who was unaware that FIFA was calling the shots. Not only that but most everyone was happy about it.

Put in the simplest terms, Fricker tried to defy FIFA, and FIFA not only tossed him under the bus but they took him out back of the bus station and beat him with tire irons for awhile first.

Alan Rothenberg was duly elected to head the USSF, and Sepp Blatter was the man responsible.