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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

How the 1994 World Cup changed soccer in the US.

Opening Ceremony of the 1994 World Cup
Opening Ceremony of the 1994 World Cup

The FIFA World Cup is taking place right now in Qatar and soccer fans all over the Bay Area are having watch parties and going to bars to root for teams from their home countries.

This World Cup is reminding some people in the Bay Area about the time in 1994, that the U.S had its turn hosting the World Cup, and while it was a big deal at the time. The legacy of that Cup was pivotal in the relationship between sport and country.

Stanford Stadium was home to six matches in the 1994 World Cup. Teams from Romania, to Colombia, to Cameroon, faced off. Even Russia played as a single nation for the first time since the Soviet Union crumbled.

So how did Stanford, and the U.S. as a whole, come to host the 1994 World Cup?

“We didn't have one at the time,” says Dr. Mashburn. “And so in a very American way, we named it Major League Soccer.”

“We didn't have one at the time,” says Dr. Mashburn. “And so in a very American way, we named it Major League Soccer.”

“The U.S. was not a strong soccer nation,” says Dr. Luke Mashburn, Department Chair of Kinesiology and Wellness at Georgia Highlands College.

He says, a nation needs to have a soccer presence to be chosen to host the world cup.

Here’s a little US soccer history: by the late 1800s, colleges had already organized soccer teams. As immigrants from soccer-loving countries came to the US, shipyards, mines, textile mills to name a few, developed teams as well.

“The U.S. participated in the first World Cup in 1930,” says Dr. Mashburn. “It was somewhat successful.”

The U.S. finished in the third place! It’s forever cemented in our international statistics.

And then from that moment in history, Mashburn says things went downhill for the American selection. The Red, White and Blue would qualify for the next two cups. But then World War II disrupted the 1942 event so international soccer was put on hold till 1950.

“U.S. had a great showing, very famous upset of England, and then didn't make the World Cup again for 40 years,” says Mashburn. He also says that other sports were just more popular.

“And around that time, baseball was expanding to the West Coast and all of these things were happening,” says Mashburn. “Soccer just didn't take off.”

So the U.S just didn’t have the kind of soccer history that would usually make a great host country. But in time to bid for the next upcoming World Cup in 1988 FIFA decided to embracea new strategy for the first time when it comes to selecting hosts: Empire Building..

“That is it was to put a World Cup in a country that maybe had the potential to embrace soccer, but wasn’t.”

The U.S. had to build a first division soccer league.

“We didn't have one at the time,” says Dr. Mashburn. “And so in a very American way, we named it Major League Soccer.”

The idea being that local American cities could rally behind their team, follow the sport and create a legacy, like with Major League Baseball.

There were some memorable moments once FIFA began working on the 1994 World Cup. Like draw day, that’s when the qualified teams are sorted to form groups in the early stage of the cups. FIFA official Sepp Blatter – who went on to be disgraced – and comedian Robin Williams were filmed doing the last draw. And there’s this hilarious cultural moment where Sepp asks Robin Williams or “Mrs. Doubtfire” to read-off the name on the ball.

The opening ceremony was held in Chicago’s Soldier’s Field and it was emceed by Oprah. Diana Ross was the musical act and during her performance she was supposed to kick the ball into the goal but missed by a wide shot.

But the biggest question of the Cup was whether the host, the US, would lose early on, or if they could hold on to the end.

The U.S. soccer federation chose its squad from PEOPLE who had played soccer in college. To be sure the team was conditioned for 90 minutes of playtime, the USSF built a small training facility and managed the squad as a club at the national level. And it worked. The U.S made it to a fourth match.

On July 4th, the US faced Brazil in a single elimination game , held at Stanford Stadium

Brazil scored the only goal in that match. And they advanced further into the cup, ultimately playing Italy in the finals and winning over a penalty kick off. Brazil secured their 4th World Cup title.

In some way, the U.S won too.

“And so the tangible thing, a legacy of that World Cup, was that we have first flight soccer here in the United States,’ says Dr. Mashburn. “That league took 20 or so years to get going, but now we've gotten to a point where MLS is a very well established league and the lasting legacy of that of that World Cup.”

Another legacy? That empire-building idea, having a country that’s on the cusp of embracing soccer be the Host.

“And there's been several other other examples of that. In 2002, the World Cup was in South Korea and Japan, says Dr. Mashburn. “In 2010, South Africa hosted the World Cup. That was the first time an African continent hosted it.”

The next World Cup will take place in the US, Canada and Mexico in 2026. And theBay Area will host games again, with teams playing at the 49ers stadium in Santa Clara.

Sebastian Miño-Bucheli is a multimedia journalist / producer at KALW Summer Training 2022 program. He's originally from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, but he's been loving his past 4 years here in the Bay Area. Sebastian is an Ecuadorian-American on track to write stories for the Latinx community.