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WORLD CUP USA 1994 : COMMENTARY : Behind the Scenes, Not Everything Has Been a Success


Four years ago, a wink on the World Cup time line, West Germany won the Cup and returned in triumph to a country that began to clamor for something else. They had won the World Cup, now they wanted the World Cup .

At the time, it was hardly a secret that the American organizational efforts, begun in 1988 after FIFA had awarded the United States the 1994 World Cup finals, had been sluggish at best. The one contract landed by the organizers--a TV deal--had been rejected by FIFA.

There was a real concern that the United States, which had been so successful with the 1984 Olympic Games and other major events, would fail to adequately organize the World Cup. Other countries were suggested as alternates. Something had to be done.

With FIFA working behind the scenes, Los Angeles attorney Alan Rothenberg was elected president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and became head of the World Cup Organizing Committee. He impressed FIFA with his energy and sophistication and promised to put on the best World Cup ever and leave a legacy for soccer in the United States.

With 50 games having been played in nine U.S. cities, after a record heat wave and record attendance, how will the organization of this World Cup be judged?

The Germans, who so coveted the event four years ago, appear pleased. Egidius Braun, president of the German soccer federation, had nothing but praise.

"It's a sensation," he said. "It will be very difficult for any other country in the world to do it the same way in the future. It can't be better."

From the perspective of the participating teams, the tournament will be viewed as one of the best.

The estimated economic impact of the World Cup in the United States is $4 billion, with a projected $623 million generated in Los Angeles. Rothenberg has estimated that the World Cup, whose budget has never been disclosed, will generate a $20-million profit.

By most accounts, the organization of the World Cup has been excellent. The biggest potential nightmare--hooliganism--was averted when England failed to qualify. Security, although present at a level most American sports fans find uncomfortable, has been effective and successful in heading off problems.

Concerns about fans' overzealous celebrations outside the stadiums haven't been borne out, either, even though Americans seem to have caught World Cup fever to a degree that few would have predicted. Attendance is at an all-time high and the nearly full stands are a welcome departure from the sparse crowds in Italy in 1990.

Also unlike Italy, no new stadiums had to be built. If the nine World Cup stadiums aren't specifically soccer-friendly, they are more than adequate.

Memories inexorably linked to this World Cup are of the murder, in his own country, of Colombian player Andres Escobar, and of the incredible heat that rendered playing conditions inhumane through much of the first round. Neither factor was under the control of World Cup organizers.

But behind the festive scenes, there have been some problems. Sponsors, fans, the media and others report awful interaction with World Cup officials, who are perceived as arrogant and greedy. They represent the United States to the rest of the world and are charged with maintaining any interest the World Cup generates.

A legacy of ill will?

Nye Lavalle, chairman of the Dallas-based Sports Marketing Group, told the San Jose Mercury News that the World Cup organizers' abrasive style will not soon be forgotten.

"They have burned bridges beyond recognition," he said. "A lot of people don't want to work with them anymore. When you start alienating key constituencies, how much support can you get for your efforts in the future?"

Among the problems:

* Tickets.

Easily the most widespread ill will has been generated by the botched handling of some of the World Cup tickets.

The first ticket offering was to the "soccer family," including fans who had written or called World Cup seeking tickets. They were offered tickets at a discount, as many as 10 strips. A deadline date was announced and the prospective buyers were told all orders would be processed, that it would not be a matter of first come, first served.

But the World Cup Organizing Committee vastly underestimated demand, and the program quickly became oversubscribed. The promise that all orders would be honored was not kept. It was first come, first served. Rothenberg's response was that this indicated interest in the games and was the kind of problem that the World Cup wanted.

There were many more. The high-end Premiere Ticket program was mishandled, and at one point orders worth more than $40 million were backlogged.

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