Just before dusk on Saturday night, the Firestone blimp lumbered into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains investigating a report of a football game in the Rose Bowl. As the balloon dipped low, the cameraman in the belly might have reported back to his network.
“Uhhh, there must be a mistake, boss,” he could have said. “There’s a huge crowd in the Rose Bowl, and they’re screaming and doing the wave and eating hot dogs, but there’s something wrong. These players are normal-shaped and they aren’t wearing helmets. And they’re kicking a round ball!”
“Thanks for warning us,” the man at network command probably said. “Just a bunch of ethnics watching a soccer game. We’ll go with the synchronized swimming re-runs. It’s a good tie-in with our fall programming.”
In his imagined scenario of the blimp flying by, Vecsey encapsulated the hope and frustration for soccer fans that remarkable night in Pasadena created. For France were playing Brazil, and it was the final of the Olympic Games soccer tournament. The crowd of 101,799 was the largest ever to assemble in the United States to watch a soccer game; and it brought the total attendance for the entire tournament to over 1,421,627 million for the 32 games at an average of 44,500.
At the same time, nobody was watching it on television: ABC’s Firestone blimp did indeed pay it scant attention. The tournament came in the dog days of the NASL, the glory days of Pele past and professional outdoor soccer seemingly dying an unlamented death in the United States.
The success of the Olympic tournament could not have come at a more crucial moment, then, for it set the U.S. on the track to host the World Cup and launch a new professional league that we now know as MLS.
The football was by all reports good, if not spectacular. Olympic rules meant players with World Cup experience weren’t eligible to play, but future World Cup captains such as Italy’s Franco Baresi and Brazil’s Dunga were amongst the rising talent who took the field.
And the fans had shown up from the start. 78,265 attended the opening the game of the tournament, as the U.S. took on Costa Rica at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California. The U.S. won 3-0, but they would lose the next game to Italy 1-0 in front of 63,000 at the Rose Bowl, and were eliminated when they could only tie with Egypt in the final group game.
Despite that disappointment, Americans kept coming to watch soccer in droves, fuelled by curiosity and cheap tickets. The attendance at the final was no aberration: in the semis, Brazil beat Italy 2-1 before 83,642 at Palo Alto and France defeated Yugoslavia at the Rose Bowl, with 97,451 in attendence. Even the bronze medal match, also at the Rose Bowl, attracted 101,799.
However, Vecsey’s imagination of the Firestone blimp veering away from the Rose Bowl speaks to the one great frustration of the tournament for soccer’s evangelists in the 1980s: American television ignored the competition. ABC only squeezed in about five minutes of coverage of the final game, despite its obvious appeal to the public.
That problem of declining television interest reflected the similar issue facing the NASL as it entered its final days. But crucially, the tournament proved to FIFA that the United States would be able to host and attract spectators to a World Cup. Alan Rothenberg, who organised the Olympic tournament, had made his name and his point to the FIFA executives who had treated the American bid for the 1986 World Cup with something verging on disdain.
Let’s allow George Vecsey to close the scene on the night when 101,799 watched soccer at the Rose Bowl, France having beaten Brazil 2-0 and the beautiful game facing an uncertain future in the States.
After the awards ceremony, a touching moment took place. Even though the United States had been eliminated in the first round, the largely American audience began chanting “U-S-A!” — unwilling to go home just yet, celebrating France and Brazil and the summer games and the full moon and the fireworks, but also celebrating the universal sport that goes on and on, even when the Olympic torch is extinguished.
Sources: George Vecsey (1984, August 13). Soccer View From a Blimp. New York Times,C15; FIFA.com, the Rose Bowl; The Year in American Soccer — 1984; David Wangerin, Soccer in a Football World, pp. 225-6