1994 World Cup USA and the European Response

Written by Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman and Lucas Nevola (2009)

Edited and Updated by Daniel Carp (2013)

On July 4, 1988, the FIFA Executive Committee voted to hold the 1994 World Cup in the United States.[1] The U.S. beat fellow bidders Brazil and Morocco for the honor with ten votes, the smallest number of winning votes in FIFA history.[2] The world was stunned, and the international reaction was far from favorable. Why should the United States, a country that on the whole cares and knows very little about football, be allowed to host the game’s most prestigious event? The most disapproval was voiced in Europe. Several journalists compared the awarding of the FIFA World Cup to the United States to “holding a major skiing competition in an African country.”[3] World Cup USA seemed completely absurd and to some extent blasphemous in the eyes of the European community.

It was no secret that FIFA had chosen the U.S. as the host country because of the massive financial support the tournament would undoubtedly receive. Yet football enthusiasts the world over disagreed with the decision and had many misgivings about how successful the tournament would be if held in the United States. Andrei Markovits, professor of politics at the University of Michigan and author of the book “Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism” sums up the 1994 general worldview of football in America, “We were always laughed at for not playing the world’s game, that we were outsiders and so on, and we couldn’t do anything right.”[4] The world, while unified in their disapproval of the U.S. as the host for the 1994 World Cup, had different reactions to the announcement that can be roughly characterized by world region. In general, the outside world, particularly Latin America, expressed doubt, and most Europeans were indignant and downright hostile[5]. In fact, the move was a political decision on the part of FIFA. For football to truly be a global game, they had to conquer their final frontier: the United States.

The first platform for criticisms of the 1994 World Cup USA was the draw, held in Las Vegas on December 19, 1993.[6] More than 500 million people worldwide watched the draw live; approximately 1 million of these viewers were American.[7] The style, entertainment choices and staging of the draw—Pelé was seated inconspicuously in the audience while several female soccer stars were seated onstage—outraged many European commentators. The draw served as an example to further the European view that “America [was] sullying a tradition that it simply did not and could never appreciate, and whose premier event it therefore most decidedly did not deserve to host.”[8] Unfortunately, FIFA’s decision to give the United States the World Cup actually create an increase in vocalized Anti-Americanism in Europe in the months leading up to the tournament. In complete opposition of the rationale behind the FIFA hosting decision, the 1994 World Cup became an excuse for America-bashing in the rest of the world[9].

In an indication of American apathy towards the World Cup and football in general, the Las Vegas draw took place at 11 a.m. Pacific time so that it would air live during primetime television in Europe. This timing was a trend that would continue throughout the World Cup matches, forcing footballers to accommodate European viewers by playing in the midday summer heat of states such as Florida, Texas and California.[10] It was apparent that FIFA’s decision to hold the Cup in the United States was an attempt to enhance the notion of the completely global nature of football. However, World Cup USA instead provided various forms of concrete proof that America was the exception in the global adoration of football.

Europeans were upset with the location of the 1994 World Cup for a number of reasons, but their indignation most often manifested itself in one of three popular opinions. Andrei Markovits discusses these negative views in his chapter entitled “The World Cup in the United States.” First, many considered Americans to be too dumb to appreciate the sport. Second, they believed that the United States would commercialize the game and make it more materialistic. Third, they didn’t like the idea of the United States trying to steal something that was not historically nor culturally theirs. While these claims are purely opinion-based, it is possible to identify factors surrounding the 1994 World Cup that might have helped create these responses.

The American public had very little football knowledge compared to the Europeans, who were exposed to football at a young age. The producers of World Cup USA had find ways to make the game more spectator-friendly in “a nation where spectators refuse to become soccer-friendly.”[11] They often mixed glitzy production techniques and pop culture references into matches to provide extra incentives for Americans to watch and to attend games and World Cup events. Additionally, the American media was forced to make difficult broadcasting decisions that may have reinforced the European sentiment of ignorant Americans. They had to explain the game to an “uninitiated” American public without offending the much more informed European viewers.[12]

Two different approaches to this are seen in a New York Times interview with Bob Goodrich, ABC’s coordinating producer for the World Cup, and Seamus Malin, one of the most famous football commentators in America and the World Cup analyst for ABC and ESPN. Goodrich says, “We’re hoping to Americanize it so it’ll be a great scene like ‘Monday Night Football.’ Every game will have scenes unlike anything most people have ever seen.”[13] Europeans favored a wide shot of the playing field that shows all of the action at once, and this was just one way that they felt “their” game was changed by Americans in the 1994 World Cup. Europeans did not want to see football being treated as if it were the NFL’s Monday Night Football show; this type of portrayal was borderline sacrilege to them. Seamus Malin, a native Irishman, identified with the challenge facing him (and the United States) a little better than Goodrich. “There is a leap to [understanding] soccer. I’ll wait for the play to illustrate for both audiences, and show how it is typical of soccer.”[14] As a European-American, he had unique insight into the mind of both groups and was privy to a deeper understanding the general European disapproval of the 1994 World Cup location.

Many Europeans were worried that the United States would commercialize the World Cup and direct attention away from the actual football for commercial gains, thereby changing the face of the game. Indications of a strong commercial influence on World Cup USA were everywhere[15]. “In the tournament the playing arenas were literally engulfed by banners of some of the most powerful companies having global operations. The list runs like this: Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, JVC, Canon, Fujifilm, Gillette, Philips, Opel, Snickers, MacDonald and the company paying for the telecast, MasterCard.”[16] Even game play was creatively interspersed with advertisements. “Sponsors compensated for forced commercial interrupts by attaching logos to the on-screen game clock/scoreboard for 15-minute stretches and by getting voiceover plugs from play-by-play men (“This portion of the game brought to you commercial-free by Snickers”).[17] FIFA knew that the United States, as a host country, would bring in the most revenue. While commercialization of sports is an internationally controversial issue, the greater capital flows surrounding the World Cup USA placed a spotlight on the advertising and commercial aspects of the 1994 World Cup that European critics decried as changing the game and contaminating it.

Some Europeans felt that the United States was trying to take football away from the rest of the country. They worried that the U.S. would “steal” the game that means the most socially, historically, politically and personally to Europeans. In 1994, the United States did not have a professional soccer league, whereas in Europe, soccer teams that define social classes and people groups have been in place for over a century.[18] Europeans believed that true football culture could not be replicated in the United States. In an interview with ESPN, Markovits commented on this very issue: “I think this is a very problematic issue because it has in my view very little to do with soccer. It has everything to do with global politics, with a long sense on the part of Europeans—and by the way, moreso on the part of the Europeans than on the part of the Latin Americans—that even though we might be politically mighty and economically mighty, we’re actually culturally inferior.”[19] Holding the World Cup in the United States was not an appropriate way for FIFA to globalize soccer and challenge this notion. If anything, the 1994 World Cup emphasized American’s coolness towards football and the enduring nature of American Exceptionalism, in sports and other arenas.[20]

By quantifiable characteristics, the 1994 World Cup was a massive success. More than 3.6 million people attended games, more than $210 million dollars were made in ticket sales alone—all nine stadiums were virtually full for every match—and the tournament play had more goals scored than the previous world cup in Italy.[21] “Even the most cynical of European reporters and the most skeptical of commentators had to admit, however grudgingly, that the World Cup in the United States had been a success.”[22] Although World Cup USA was a financial and public success, the summer of 1994 did very little to change Europe’s opinion of the United States’ relationship with football. The fact that this World Cup had the highest attendance in World Cup history was interpreted by some Europeans as clear evidence of “America’s crassness and materialist obsession.”[23]

If FIFA’s goal was to enhance the idea of football as a global game, its success was superficial. The United States will only win football respect in the eyes of Europeans if it is gained on the field and the sport finds its way into the hearts of the American public. In this way, the game play is the globalizing force, not the institutions that have sprung up around it. World Cup USA did not change the European attitude toward football in America, but planted the seeds for a change that will happen gradually over time —not over the course of one awkward summer.

Note: Unless a link is provided with the in-text citation, the source is not available online. Most journal and newspaper articles are available through the Duke University library system.

In case you don’t remember World Cup USA, below is a YouTube video that highlights some of the top goals of the cup:   The Most Memorable Goals of the 1994 World Cup USA

Click here to return to the main page on “The Soccer Market in the U.S.”

How to cite this article: “1994 World Cup USA and the European Response,” Written by Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman and Lucas Nevola (2009), Edited and Updated by Daniel Carp (2013), Soccer Politics Pages, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp (accessed on (date)).


[1] “FIFA World Cup Host Announcement Decision.” Chart. www.fifa.com. InfoPlus. Web. <http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/fifafacts/mencompwc/51/97/81/ip-201_13a_fwc-host.pdf>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Markovits, Andrei S., and Steven L. Hellerman. Offside Soccer and American Exceptionalism. New York: Princeton UP, 2001. Print. 329

[4] Wynalda, Eric, Seamus Malin, Cobi Jones, Joe Brodkin, Jeff Agoos, Landon Donovan, Pedro Bassan, and Corrado Sannucci. “Outside The Lines – Red, White and Boo & Dressed for Success.” Interview by Bob Ley. Espn.com. ESPN. Outside the Lines. Show 118, 30 June 2002. Television.

[5] Markovits 329

[6] Starr, Mark. “Do You Believe in Miracles?” Newsweek 20 Dec. 1993: 104. Duke University Libraries. Web.

[7] Markovitz 208

[8] Ibid. 209-210

[9] “The odd man out.” The Economist 379.8481 (2006): 32. Print.

[10] Markovitz 210

[11] Sinha, Dipankar. “World Cup USA: A Different Perspective.” Economic and Political Weekly 29.31 (1994): 1996-997. Print.

[12] Sandomir, Richard. “Soccer: Trying to Americanize the World’s Favorite Game.” The New York Times 10 June 1994. Print.

[13] Sandomir

[14] Sandomir

[15] Sinha

[16] Ibid.

[17] Yockel, Michael. “Get your kicks.” Adweek Western Edition 44.26 (1994): 29. Business Source Complete. Web.

[18] Plaschke, Bill. “WORLD CUP USA 1994 – ‘Americatown’ Shows Up – Host Country Has Done a Fine Job of Providing the Antiseptic Venues, but It’s the Immigrants Who Give This Competition Its Culture and Passion.” The Los Angeles Times 26 June 1994. Print.

[19] Interview by Bob Ley

[20] “The odd man out.”

[21] Markovits 231

[22] Markovits 232

[23] Markovits 329

2 thoughts on “1994 World Cup USA and the European Response

  1. Pingback: The People of the United States v. Sepp Blatter | mentxaka3

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