The U.S. soccer team is enjoying its greatest success in 80 years, but the hunt to bring America the World Cup goes far beyond the next two weeks in South Africa.
Even as the national squad prepares to play Ghana on Saturday, U.S. soccer officials are racing to secure the country's bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. Leading the charge is Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and chairman of the USA Bid Committee.
In that role, he coordinates efforts to convince the bigwigs of FIFA that the U.S. and not Japan, Qatar, Russia or eight other countries deserve to get the nod. A final decision will be made Dec. 2. In the meantime, win or lose in Johannesburg, Gulati will be focused on one goal.
"My job is to convince people to vote for us," said Gulati from South Africa, where he has been since before the tournament began. "It's a hectic time."
To do that, he does a lot of traveling and a lot of schmoozing — and isn't afraid to call on powerful friends for help. That was in evidence Wednesday in Pretoria when President Bill Clinton, who happens to be honorary chairman of the bid committee, sat next to FIFA's head, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter.
Although the pair allegedly discussed healthcare and education, the subtext was all too obvious. After all, Clinton wasn't the first president to bend Blatter's ear of late. Last July, Blatter was a guest of President Obama at the White House, where the basketball playing commander in chief talked of playing soccer as a child in Indonesia. And even as the World Cup began, Blatter was visited by Vice President Joe Biden.
And it's not just presidents. The U.S. may not yet have its own Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo on the field, but it does have luminaries such as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the voice of God himself, actor Morgan Freeman.
None may be more qualified for the job than Gulati, who has been integral to the rebirth of American soccer over the past two decades and was involved in the winning U.S. bid to land the 1994 World Cup. He subsequently headed the organizing committee for that event, which by some metrics including 3.6 million in attendance, has been judged the most successful of all time.
Unlike the last bid, which was run on a shoestring, Gulati said he has an $8-million to $10-million budget to work with this time, as well as a far more established national soccer infrastructure.
The rewards could be huge. One study showed that the economic impact of the 1994 World Cup on the city of Los Angeles was over $620 million, compared with $180 million from the 1994 Super Bowl in Atlanta. It's estimated that the current World Cup will bring in some $21 billion to host South Africa.
If the U.S. is selected to host the event again, it would join an elite list of countries to have held the World Cup more than once: Germany, France, Italy and Mexico. Another, Brazil, will play repeat host in 2014.
But with the exception of Mexico, which was chosen as an emergency host when Colombia fell out for the 1986 Cup, all the others had to wait at least three decades to unroll the red carpets a second time.
Despite that, insiders say that the Stars and Bars have an increasingly strong shot. One bidder, Indonesia, dropped out in March. More importantly, Mexico (trying for an unprecedented third World Cup), pulled its bid last September, meaning that the only country in the Western Hemisphere trying for the prize is the U.S.
According to Shawn Hunter, president of Chivas USA of Major League Soccer and a board member of the league, "word is that 2018 is going to Europe and that we'll get 2022."
The European bids come from England, Portugal and Spain in a joint bid, and the Netherlands and Belgium, also in a team effort. Russia also has its hat in the ring.
Already during the World Cup, Blatter has met with a number of representatives from other bidders hoping to win his vote. According to his Twitter feed, he's talked with London Mayor Boris Johnson.
If the U.S. does indeed carry the day, cities including Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Denver would be potential sites for games, likely to take place in football stadiums. The final of the 1994 World Cup was held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
With less than five months until decision time, Gulati has much to do. Just nine days after the South Africa World Cup wraps up, a team of FIFA inspectors will begin roaming the globe to evaluate the bids of each country, checking out facilities and meeting organizers.
And while he awaits the inspection report, there are 25 members of the FIFA Executive Committee that need to learn to smile on the red, the white and the blue.
"We got to convince 13 of them to vote for us," Gulati said.