Friday's World Cup draw will pin the globe's attention on the vast, complex landmass that is Brazil. Yet before FIFA's mysterious ping-pong balls tumble into place, it is worth taking a moment to remember an event, almost 20 years ago to the day, in which the football world shone its spotlight on an even more exotic terrain, from a footballing perspective at least -- Las Vegas.
On Dec. 19, 1993, Sin City was the site of the World Cup draw for USA 1994.
The star-studded event took place at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip. A cast of thousands including Barry Manilow, Julio Iglesias, Faye Dunaway and Dick Clark were involved in a fantastical affair that the great Bob Ley described being as if "Salvador Dali could produce a state lottery."
Fittingly for such a surreal occasion, it was Robin Williams who stole the spotlight. First, the comedian described the draw bracket as "the world's biggest keno game" and then proceeded to refer repeatedly to Sepp Blatter as "Sepp Bladder," even after the then-FIFA general secretary corrected him, insisting, "This is not a comedy!"
Beneath the pizzazz, the stakes could not have been higher. Twenty years ago America was a soccer skeptic at best, soccer-phobic at worst. When the nation had been awarded the right to host the tournament in 1988, New York Times columnist George Vecsey noted: "The United States was chosen, by the way, because of all the money to be made here, not because of our soccer prowess. Our country has been rented as a giant stadium and hotel and television studio for the next thirty-one days." A national poll undertaken three weeks before the tournament's kickoff discovered that 71 percent of Americans were still not aware it was about to be played in their country.
I recently relived the immense sense of pressure surrounding the event with the man who organized it, Alan Rothenberg. The attorney turned visionary sports administrator stepped in to become president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and CEO of the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee at FIFA's behest.
Rothenberg is now 74 years old, but memories of the event remain fresh. "FIFA were worried about the progress of the tournament organizing," he said. "Hard as it may to believe now, but the U.S. was fighting to prove its legitimacy soccer-wise, and I was desperate to make sure the draw was a huge success. We knew we had to put on the best World Cup in history ... to leave a legacy for the sport in this country."
"There was so much going on ... I felt a lot of pressure," Rothenberg said. "The draw itself from an organizing perspective is a huge set of parties. For us, it was a chance to raise the profile of the tournament and sell tickets ... but we were starting to work on the creation of MLS even as the draw was going on, so we had lots of panels and meetings with potential investors behind the scenes."
The choice of location was quickly made. "We considered New York, Los Angeles and even Hawaii but [member of the organizing committee] Guido Tognoni loved Vegas and sowed the idea in FIFA's mind ... they urged us to hold it there." Rothenberg admitted the locale was a perfect match for the main goals of the event: raise the public awareness surrounding the tournament and create an energy that could ultimately propel the launch of MLS. "Vegas fits because it is associated with glitz," he said.
"We had to elevate this event in the eyes of Americans," Rothenberg said. "We knew we had a hardcore audience of ethnics who had immigrated into America and bought their love of the game ... but we had to move the event out front-of-mind before the general public who would then attend because it was a big event, so we emphasized the entertainment aspect."
Rothenberg admitted that many of the entertainers had little to no clue about football. "All I remember is introducing Robin Williams backstage to [dignitaries] from different countries, and with no hesitation he would talk gibberish to them but as if he was fluent in their own native languages. One minute he was taking Serb, the next a Baltic language and then Bolivian. When [Williams] referred to Sepp Blatter as an organ he got a huge laugh," he giggled. "I have never seen anyone that quick."
I ask Rothenberg to describe what it was like to work with a young Sepp Blatter, causing him to chuckle softly once more. "At the time he was general secretary and Joao Havelange was FIFA president," he said. "I had a close partnership with Sepp. I handled the event domestically, he handled it internationally ... he was just a super sports executive who knew how to get things done. Even back then he had a feel for it that has become obvious, for the members of FIFA and their peculiar needs."
To their horror, the U.S. discover the fix isn't in
In the run-up to the draw, two storylines dominated the headlines. The first was a subplot involving Pele's role in the official proceedings. The Brazilian legend was then embroiled in a kickback scandal that had seen him fall foul of his nation's Football Association.
"Because of some internal Brazilian machinations, Havelange and Pele were 'on the outs,'" Rothenberg said. "So we were forbidden from using Pele in the draw. Somehow I got him a credential in a prominent place in the audience, which did not endear me to Havelange, but I needed Pele. He was the only name the American public recognized in the game of soccer."
Then, as now, the other headline narrative surrounded the mysterious process of the 24-team draw itself, which many in the media declared was rigged. Diego Maradona led the charge, claiming the procedure was a "real farce" in an interview with an Argentinian daily, Clarin, which headlined their story as "Bingo in Vegas."
The Los Angeles Daily News reinforced that sense, first proclaiming that "the draw will be Blatter's version of a shell game where now you see it, not you don't," then marvelling that "it takes a certain amount of skill to pull a team out of the bowl just when you want it." The Swiss did not exactly diffuse such rumors when Sepp cryptically declared, "it is not a question of fairness but of understanding of doing the draw."
Stories abounded of how the Irish had been assured before the draw that they would be playing in Boston, and the Mexicans believed they would be drawn in fan-friendly Dallas. Naturally, the most intrigue surrounded the group placement of the U.S. team, then ranked 27th in the world and an outfit desperate to avoid the stigma of becoming the first host unable to emerge from the group stage. "Our U.S. team program was developing but it was still in its infancy," Rothenberg said. "We had no domestic league in the States back then, and European teams largely frowned upon using U.S. talent so our players had no club teams to play on."
"The day before the draw we had a practice run-through," Rothenberg said. "There was one team everyone was terrified of -- Colombia -- who were widely recognized as a dark horse to win it all." Los Cafeteros had just whipped Argentina 5-0 in qualifying. "In the practice draw they were never in our group," Rothenberg said, as if still fuming. "But come the real thing, for whatever reason, the United States ended up with Colombia and I was crazed! It was not meant to be!"
At the time, Rothenberg told The New York Times, "Believe me, if this thing was fixed, it wouldn't be fixed with Colombia in the U.S. group," and he holds that line. "The Irish and the Mexican [pre-draw] rumors were based on their hopes alone. If the draw was done the way it was supposed to in practice, Colombia were meant to be in another group. I am not sure if it skipped Sepp's mind or he changed the procedure, but I went nuts and was yelling, swearing like a drunken sailor."
As every American soccer fan now knows, the United States and Colombia ended up in Group A alongside Switzerland, which had beaten and drawn Italy in qualifying, as well as a Gheorghe Hagi-led Romania. "In the wake of the draw, I was scared to death about the U.S. prospects. I did not know where the points were going to come from," he said. "We assumed we would lose to Colombia, maybe tie Romania and beat Switzerland." (The U.S. ultimately tied the Swiss, famously beat Colombia and lost to Romania.)
A 23-year-old Alexi Lalas took in the events in wonder from the back of the hall along with the rest of the U.S. squad. He admits he was unsure what to make of it all.
"We were too young and naive to think it could have gone better," he said. "We knew we were going to be underdogs, whomever we were picked to play."
For Lalas, the shiny veneer of the event made the deepest impact. "This was our first experience of a FIFA-produced spectacle," he said. "I enjoyed the inevitable awkwardness of language and culture." He also savored the sight of Tony Meola on stage representing the country as the U.S. national team captain.
"Seeing Tony up there before the world was the first moment it dawned on me exactly what was about to happen in the United States in 1994, and how much bigger than us the event would ultimately be."