The announcement of the approval of the collective bargaining agreement between the U.S. Soccer Federation and players should eliminate some tension from preparations for the 2006 World Cup.
A year ago, relations between labor and management were going from bad to worse as coach Bruce Arena brought in replacement players to prepare for the final round of qualifying. But at some point, the parties modified their adversarial relationship, and it's fortunate they did. Among the fundamental requirements of World Cup qualifying is attaining stability within a federation and team. There are dozens of examples of this, and the U.S. has been among the best.
The U.S. qualified for the 1990 World Cup partly because it was consistent, while Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago self-immolated. The teams which seriously contend for the World Cup (Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy) avoid major disruptions, and this is symbolized by the fact they seldom change coaches during the qualifying cycle, and the U.S. has followed this example.
Brazilian clubs are notorious for firing coaches, but the Selecao has stayed the course with Sebastiao Lazaroni, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Mario Zagallo, Luiz Felipe Scolari and, again, Parreira. Brazil did have to dump Emerson Leao and Wanderley Luxemburgo, but only because of their self-destructive actions during a brief period before the 2002 finals, excellent examples of exceptions to prove the rule. Brazil then brought in Scolari, who was considered hardheaded, stubborn and unimaginative, but brought the consistency the team needed.
Argentina, Germany and Italy are similarly steady. Vittorio Pozzo guided the Italians in the 1912 and '24 Olympics and was national team coach from 1929-48; Sepp Herberger led the Germans from 1936-64, setting the standard for stability.
There was some post-'94 indecision with the U.S. team. Steve Sampson replaced Bora Milutinovic on an interim basis, then earned the full-time designation. And when Arena was hired in 1998, he was by no means a unanimous choice. But the USSF and Arena have been loyal to each other since then. Stability alone does not guarantee success. And certainly, each country's situation is different. Very different.
World Cup rewards vary greatly. Saudi Arabia players were awarded $17,500 and a Mercedes Benz for qualifying for the 2002 World Cup and would have gained $1 million each for winning the championship. England was offering $280,000 to each player for a 2002 World Cup win, which is about two weeks' worth of salary for some Chelsea players. Italy's payoff was to be $154,000 per man.
If the U.S. wins every game in the World Cup, the team will divide $16,466,252, or $715,924 per player. If the U.S. matches its 2002 quarterfinal performance, the players will divvy up $5.625 million, plus about $2 million already earned for qualifying for the finals (slightly more than Mexico's payoff for qualifying). These would be significant earnings for a U.S.-based performer, but nothing exceptional for a top-class European club player, signifying that the national team still means more than dollar (or euro or pound) figures for most of the world.
In West Africa, for instance, expectations have gradually increased since Cameroon began making a strong impression in the '80s. West African countries often reward players with automobiles and villas if they qualify for the World Cup. But there is a double-edged sword -- if they fail to advance, those very properties can be placed at risk. The home of Inter Milan's Pierre Wome (plus business establishments belonging to his friends) were attacked after he missed a penalty kick in a tie with Egypt which cost Cameroon a place in the '06 Cup.
This raises the question of why Wome would bother coming back to Cameroon in the future. But Ivory Coast players did just that; under president Robert Guei, they were placed in detention camp, and now, with the Elephants having edged out Cameroon, Laurent Gbagbo has presented each player with a house worth about $52,000 and the honor of Knight of the National Order.
For third world players, the World Cup is a showcase, a platform to launch a European career. Only a small percentage of Africans find soccer success in Europe. Those who do make it are subject to all sorts of prejudice, and those who fail end up working odd jobs, but they are still in a better financial position than if they had stayed in Africa. The price is worth paying, the risk worth taking.
The U.S. player's situation is unique, though, and it is not just about the money. U.S. players are still competing for the glory at the World Cup level. Many of them could earn more in other endeavors, most are good enough athletes that they could have chosen another sport with more lucrative possibilities. Nor has the World Cup been proven to be a ticket to Europe for U.S. players. Pablo Mastroeni, for instance, was excellent in the 2002 World Cup, but no European (or Mexican) clubs seemed very interested.
Things could be different in Germany '06, though, just because European eyes will be focused on the team. After the '90 World Cup in Italy, players such as Tab Ramos, Peter Vermes, Steve Trittschuh, Eric Wynalda found clubs in Europe, despite the terrible showing of the U.S. There was no MLS then, and U.S. soccer players had to be resourceful. Now, the MLS provides security and stability, but low pay. In fact, the MLS is more secure than most professional leagues around the world, but it is the only one with a salary cap. There will be MLS labor negotiations, now that a players' association has been established. Hopefully, they will follow the example of the USSF-U.S. National Team Players Association.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.