President-elect Barack Obama plays with a ball while waiting to watch his daughter Malia's soccer game at a park in Chicago on July 1, 2008.
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
NEW YORK – As a child, Barack Obama often played soccer on the streets of Indonesia. These days, his affinity for the sport stretches little further than watching his daughter Malia's junior games and owning a long-distance appreciation for English Premier League team West Ham United.
Yet before he even sets up camp in the Oval Office, signs indicate that the President-elect may already be the best thing soccer in the United States could ever have wished for.
The world game likes to think that it belongs to the people. However, in reality, its cloistered corridors of power are among the most politically intertwined in international sport.
What U.S. Soccer craves is the right to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup. The election of Obama has made such an outcome far more likely.
"We would all like to believe sports and politics do not conflict, but we must be realistic," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told Yahoo! Sports. "Certainly, there is a connection. When people talked about China hosting the Olympic Games, it was not independent of other concerns.
"Anything that enhances the perceived views of the United States can only be a positive for us."
There is a clear element of "popularity contest" about the way the members of FIFA, soccer's worldwide governing body, make their big decisions. While Obama may have garnered 53 percent of the popular vote to become USA's first African-American president, internationally he has rock-star status. His victory was front-page news in every corner of the globe and the outpouring of delight has been overwhelming.
To believe Obama's popularity will not have an impact on the World Cup selection would smack of naivety, according to a high-placed FIFA source.
"How can it not make a difference?" said the source, who asked not to be named. "Now when you think of America, you don't think George W. Bush or war. You think of this man, Obama, who has made history and given hope to millions.
"The men who vote on World Cup hosts are not immune to those same feelings. If the U.S. bid stacks up in terms of infrastructure and organization, then Obama could be a huge factor."
Obama figures to have a similar influence on the 2016 Olympic Games, which Chicago is vying for alongside Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro. Japanese Olympic Committee chief Tsunekazu Takeda has already admitted Tokyo's chances of success diminished significantly the moment Obama was crowned the election victor, making Chicago the strong favorite.
The respective rival soccer associations looking at bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups are too savvy to give up any psychological ground at this early stage. But America's main opponents, likely to be England in addition to joint bids from Spain/Portugal and Belgium/Holland/Luxembourg, must be seriously concerned about the boost received by America's bid, which is yet to be made official but is no secret.
The last and only time the U.S. staged the World Cup was in 1994, when the tournament shattered all-time attendance records that still stand to this day. That month in the world spotlight placed the sport in the consciousness of the American public, after soccer flat-lined following the demise of the North American Soccer League in the 1980s. Following the tournament, Major League Soccer began and has progressed steadily ever since. Participation levels have grown, while television viewing figures, especially the top European leagues, push onwards to decent, if unspectacular, levels.
In terms of its ability to host the World Cup, the U.S. is in a position of strength. The phenomenal success of the National Football League is a key element with its countless giant state-of-the-art stadiums in which to host matches.
Highly respected in FIFA circles, Gulati and his team were growing in confidence even before Obama's victory.
"We know we have got great infrastructure, stadiums and so on," Gulati said. "We know we would stage a terrific World Cup and having people view us as a nation in a better way is a positive.
"It was very clear from the reaction around the world just how popular this result has been. This election has given a lot of people a reason to cheer. They are looking forward to changes in policy.
"We are waiting for the rules of the game to be announced regarding 2018 and 2022. We will go after it in an aggressive fashion."
FIFA president Sepp Blatter is expected to visit Obama at the White House next year, while Obama also is likely to attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The iconic images that would be spawned by a meeting between Obama and Nelson Mandela would cast further positive vibes upon the sport.
Much now hinges on the decision-making progress. At present, it is unclear if nations will be forced to choose which World Cup to bid for, or if they will be allowed to put forward for both 2018 and 2022. Either way, it is impossible to contemplate Europe not getting at least one of the selections. Currently, England is considered to be the strongest European candidate.
Africa and South America will not be in contention because of how recently they will have staged a World Cup. Brazil will play host in 2014.
CONCACAF president Jack Warner believes the U.S. should step aside for the Europeans on 2018 and instead effectively square off against Australia and China for 2022. But if Gulati and U.S. Soccer had been leaning toward that approach, Obama's rise to the White House may have shifted the goalposts.
If U.S. Soccer believes it can win in 2018, it will certainly go for it and enjoy the resulting spin-offs four years sooner.
Some say it will take more than the arrival of a single charismatic superstar to transform the game and its status in America, as evidenced by David Beckham's arrival in MLS and its failure to give soccer the boost that was hoped for. Maybe what was actually needed was a different kind of superstar, one who operates in the political playing field rather than within the white lines.
If that is the case, then U.S. Soccer's dreams just came true.