For much of the last century you would have had a hard time finding any Americans who could name the FIFA president.
In fact, it would have been equally difficult to find anybody in the United States who knew what FIFA stood for, and the idea that a FIFA president’s resignation could spawn instant news analysis and special programming on our sports networks would have been incomprehensible.
Yet when the great history of FIFA is written, after the current scandals and the Sepp Blatter era are digested, probed and eventually consigned to the past, it will not be surprising if the United States proves to have played a front and center role in transforming FIFA from a soccer house to a global sports juggernaut.
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FIFA spent nearly 75 years on the fringes of world sports. It was very important to those European and South American countries that had soccer as their number one interest, but it was far from equaling the International Olympic movement. The World Cup, dominated by a small number of nations and hosted entirely by countries where club soccer was important, attracted passionate attention from the soccer powers but was largely a footnote elsewhere.
Founded in 1904, FIFA didn’t even attract England — which billed itself as both the home of soccer and the best at the international game — to a World Cup until 1950. For the first half of the 20th Century, winning the Olympic soccer gold medal was the goal of many nations, the World Cup an interesting, but hardly all-encompassing pursuit.
What changed was the decision taken in 1988 to award the 1994 World Cup to the United States, which edged Morocco in the competition to host the event. It marked the first time that FIFA named a host without a major soccer pedigree, taking a chance on a country that did not even support a strong professional league. Although soccer had followers in North America, the award was greeted initially with disbelief.
Hindsight reveals that the United States’ World Cup altered the playing field in ways that no one could have anticipated. After a 1990 Cup in Italy had showcased swathes of empty seats and some of the most unattractive aspects of the international game, 1994 arrived with a championship that was brilliant on the field and even better in the stands. Capacity crowds greeted players that many Americans had never heard of; television audiences far exceeded hopes; and the fact that the tournament took place on a "European time schedule" meant that the World Cup was prime time entertainment in the countries that actually cared the most about it.
FIFA had gambled and won. How big of a win it was turned out to be story of the next 20 years.
Competition to both sponsor and host an event that now rivaled the Olympics in interest and advertising power transformed not only the world game, but a sleepy Zurich headquarters which suddenly was minting money.
FIFA expanded its tournament to 32 teams, greatly enhancing its appeal in Africa, Asia and CONCACAF, whose participation had been minimal in the era of a sixteen-nation finals. It also moved to support the various confederation championships by hosting a quadrennial Confederations Cup and also extended its tentacles further with its World Club championship.
FIFA was no longer an administrative arm of the game and a custodian of the sport’s rules. It had suddenly become an active promoter, competing for sponsor dollars, television audiences and world media attention.
It is easy to get caught up in the scandal stories which have marred FIFA’s reputation in recent years, easy to point to Blatter as the man whose control of the soccer world’s governing body put him square in the crosshairs of the critics.
It is fair, however, to note that it was Blatter who read the prevailing winds and took FIFA into the forefront of global sports. He championed those further "experiments" in host sites, taking the tournament to Asia and Africa. He staunchly supported expanding FIFA’s commitment to youth tournaments and women’s football, sometimes without much backing from spectators or some of his federations. And he has steadfastly backed the expansion of the Cup, itself, to include a much wider representation of national teams.
The critics will say that FIFA became too obsessed with its own power and spent too much time trying to maximize revenues, sponsorships and TV deals. There are plenty of those willing to say that by awarding World Cups to Russia and Qatar, FIFA had sold its crown jewel to the highest bidders.
Blatter’s resignation announcement Tuesday will be seen as the consequence of a leader and an organization caught up in a race to maximize power and profits, a FIFA which became too big, too smug and too unwilling to listen to criticism.
That is probably too simple an explanation: world sports television and world sports marketing are what really transformed the playing field Blatter left. Where Blatter and FIFA went off the rails is that this new world provided temptations that these powerful men were somehow powerless to resist.