Recollecting the Draw
Along with the pride of qualifying for the seventh straight FIFA World Cup, many U.S. fans also remember there was a gap of 40 years between appearances from 1950-1990. Thus for many Americans, the 1990 draw in Italy was the start of a learning process that has continued even today, when fans, players and pundits alike discuss with increasing regularity the merits of drawing your World Cup group.
Former U.S. Men’s National Team player Peter Vermes was part of the team that qualified for the first World Cup in 40 years in 1989 and remembers finding out about the U.S.’ group while on television, as well as the awkward coincidence of finding himself sitting right next to one of his future opponents.
“I was playing club soccer for FC Volendam in Holland and was invited onto a sports show, similar to something you’d find on ESPN here, along with several other international players who played on Dutch club teams,” said Vermes. “They were showing the draw live, and U.S. and Czechoslovakia were drawn into the same group. Of course, the player sitting next to me had to be Czech. It was pretty funny, and we ended up making a friendly wager on the show.
“That obviously didn’t work out too well for me after they beat us 5-1.”
Drawn into a now-impossible three European team group, including hosts Italy and Austria, the U.S. certainly had rough luck with the balls. But Vermes doesn’t look back on it in quite the negative light. “It wasn’t as if we’d ever been part of it before, at least the guys in my generation. We were so happy just being in the World Cup, that it didn’t really matter which group we were thrown into.”
Even if American sports fans hadn’t really known about the draw in 1989, they got an up close look at the process in December of 1993 when the U.S. hosted it in Las Vegas, Nev. The use of one of America’s brightest cities to shine on a worldwide event seemed fitting for a country preparing to host its first World Cup and increased the spectacle of the ceremony, from a simple logistics process into a show for the world to see.
“For the ’94 draw in Vegas, you could not have picked a better place to have the draw than Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas,” said journalist Michael Lewis, who has covered every draw since 1986 in Mexico.
“You’re talking about a worldwide audience of over 1 billion people watching it. It’s like one big giant media day, and you get the chance to talk with various national team coaches before the draw, FIFA officials, maybe a couple celebrities like Pele or Franz Beckenbauer. For a sportswriter or anyone in the media, it’s a goldmine. Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day to write everything you want to at the draw.”
One little known fact about the draw is that there is a dress rehearsal for the proceedings. “Sometimes you hear about the dress rehearsal results and you hear that ‘The United States has been put in with so and so teams,’ said Lewis. You think ‘Wow, that’s a great draw for the U.S.’, but you know you’re not going to get the same exact draw again.”
As U.S. Soccer has improved over the years, the importance of the draw has grown. No longer happy just to see our name on the board, players, coaches and fans began to understand the strategy and value in getting thrown into a group with specific teams by France ’98 and Korea/Japan ’02.
“There were so many things that we were so naïve to in the Italy draw,” said Vermes. “The strategy for your group, preparing for not just the teams but the order of matches, even what it meant be in the same group as the hosts.
“Now, with this being our sixth consecutive draw, the expectations are higher because we expect to make it into the next round. It just goes to illustrate how quickly the U.S. has grown in the world of soccer.”
After the success of the 2002 World Cup, where the U.S. reached the quarterfinals after knocking off regional rival Mexico in the round of 16 before falling 1-0 to Germany, U.S. Men’s National Team all-time caps leader Cobi Jones was back in the draw arena for 2006 representing the United States. But this time, he wasn’t waiting to hear his group as a player—he was helping to pick the groups for every other nation.
“In 2005, I got a call from our press officer and he told me that I had been chosen by FIFA to draw balls, and of course it was a great honor but a definite surprise,” said Jones. “I had no clue that I was in consideration for it, but once I got the invitation, everything else went to the side and I made myself available and was ready to go.
“It was a great honor just to be there. I mean, talking about the hoopla in Vegas at the draw for 1994, it was nothing compared to what was going on in Germany. The whole country stopped. To be a part of that and to see the festivities with people like Johann Cruyff, Pele, and the Prime Minister of Germany, Angela Merkel…it was just special to be up there representing the United States and to be pulling out the balls and picking teams’ destinies.”
Comparing the 1994 draw (which he attended as a player) and the 2006 draw (where he helped pick the groups), Jones considered which one had more pressure.
“I would say, to be honest, it was more nerve wracking doing the balls and everything,” he said. “When you’re a player you’re just excited and ready to play. You’re not too concerned about the actual function, you just want to see who you’re playing, where and when and get ready to go.”
Friday, Dec. 4, will no doubt be a big day not just for the U.S. but around the world as well. Three years of matches and almost two months of anticipation will finally come to fruition as the U.S. Men’s National Team finds out where, when and who they’ll face in South Africa next summer. As the history shows, there is more pressure on the draw results now then there was in 1989. But with that pressure comes the pride of knowing that the United States no longer shows up just to participate—we’ve got as much of a right to the trophy as any nation.