Frank Dell'Apa: Battle for soccer's place in America is humming along nicely

Prior to World Cup 1994 soccer coverage in the United States was essentially nonexistent, which highlights how far and quickly the sport has grown stateside.
For those who have been soccer columnists in the mainstream media, the things that have come to pass in recent years – MLS, national team support, U.S. players making an impact overseas, important soccer games televised, serious media coverage of the professional game – were what we hoped would emerge someday.

But we had no idea if, or when, any of this would happen.

For many years, we soccer writers could expound on anything we wanted to, though we were limited to doing it once a week. We were like midfielders with lots of time and space – we could stand there and juggle, try to curl shots under the bar from the center circle, we had time to line up through balls. Nobody was bothering us. We were not sure how many people were reading us, either. But I always knew there was latent interest in the game and that the mainstream media was not addressing it. And that was why I decided to focus on soccer, to become the Boston Globe’s soccer writer.

There was a sense of destiny – when I first was assigned NASL coverage in 1977, I started collecting everything I could for reference. Information was difficult to come by in those days and I thought I needed to start building a soccer library to be used when the sport got bigger. My wife never thought the library was such a great idea – and now we have to deal with a basement of cabinets filled with old magazines (Calcio 2000, Don Balon, El Grafico, France Football, Guerin Sportivo, Soccer America, World Soccer), newspapers, press guides. All of that print info was very useful – actually, indispensable – from the time I started writing a weekly soccer column for the Globe in 1991.

July 4, 1988 – the day FIFA awarded the ’94 World Cup to the U.S. – marked the start of what could be called the modern era of soccer in the U.S. That was the day Joao Havelange determined soccer would become prominent in our immediate future.

In those days, Havelange was the only person in a position of power at FIFA who believed in the U.S. as a relevant soccer country. Havelange went by numbers, and he was able to add things up as massive crowds arrived for the ’84 Olympic soccer tournament; he also talked to the right people, so he got a ground-level view of the interest in the game. Havelange nixed the U.S. bid for the ’86 World Cup but was convinced the country would be ready for the World Cup by ‘94, though there were major doubters both within and without the game’s power structure.

That Havelange got his way – there were no serious bidders competing against the U.S. for rights – indicates just how strong his grip on FIFA was. It is also a measure of his foresight, since he knew the ’94 World Cup would spark the growth of the game, leading to a professional league, etc. The U.S. was a sleeping giant and Havelange knew it was time to wake it up.

My editors at the Globe agreed to let me start writing a weekly Soccer Notes column, and though I am sure they had doubts at times, they put me on the schedule to do just that every Monday for nearly 20 years. There have been some changes at the Globe, and I still write the column, just not as regularly.

For most of those 20 years I felt duty-bound to get the word out. It was not just an enjoyable, ego-fulfillment exercise, but a crusade of sorts to let people know soccer was big-time, it was going on all around them and it was important.

Anyway, in recent years, all sorts of avenues have opened, satisfying people’s curiosity about the game. There are websites all over the place – this is one of the very best – disseminating information that would never have been considered by the mainstream press – except for once a week, when I and others used to try to round up as many items as we could.

Yes, there was a huge void out there. We could not come close to satisfying demand for information; at least, that’s what we told our editors. We supplied what we could, often in the face of institutional resistance. So, it’s great to see all of this info out there. I don’t feel like I absolutely have to get the Soccer Notes column into the Globe every week. The subjects I would be writing about are available, and dedicated readers can usually find the information.

The progress, or whatever we were fighting for – and, yes, it was often a battle; a lot like how it used to be to try to secure a decent, accurately-lined soccer field with actual goals and nets and corner flags – is happening. Crucially, there is a generation which has taken up the cause and is producing knowledgeable, sophisticated soccer journalism. This generation is also producing interesting players, supporters who are passionate and organized, and will soon be giving us administrators, agents, coaches and referees who will take the game to a higher level. We are counting on you.