Werner Fricker was a defensive midfielder with the U.S. Men’s National Team that trekked to Mexico City to battle for a berth at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a bid that failed, much like pretty much everything else had in American soccer following the glorious England upset of 1950.
Then 28, Fricker, who had not seen action in the games (losses to Suriname and Mexico and a victory over Panama), returned home to Horsham, Pa., unhappy with the standard of the U.S. team. Not just how the side had played, but its organization and preparation for the matches. The United States Soccer Football Association, as the federation was then known, couldn't provide the kind of support required to succeed.
“My father deeply cared about the game, and he deeply cared about the United States,” says his son, Werner Jr. “He saw a lot going on back then in the '60s that he didn't like. He came home from qualifying for the Tokyo Games and was quite disgusted. He told my mother, 'Someday I'm going to fix this.' ”
Fricker kept his word.
The history of American soccer, its position within the game's global landscape – and within this country's sporting landscape – is divided by the 1994 FIFA World Cup. There's a before, with a few glorious moments (the 1930 semifinals, Belo Horizonte, Pelé and the Cosmos and the NASL's buzz years) and not much else. The U.S. was a minnow in a region of minnows, the sport just a blip outside its ethnic and immigrant communities. The after is where we are today and the path taken to get here.
The man most responsible? It was Fricker.
As president of the U.S. Soccer Federation from 1984 through 1990, he built the foundation of the country's now-successful National Teams program, funding much of it out of his own pocket, and with laser focus pursued the bid to stage that 1994 World Cup, confident in his vision of what soccer here could become.
“I think there have been several watershed moments for U.S. soccer,” said Dan Flynn, U.S. Soccer’s Secretary General, who while with Anheuser Busch worked with Fricker. “But I don't think you can honestly say anything other than landing that [bid to host] the 1994 World Cup is probably the single most important launchpad, if you will, for where we are today. [Werner's] vision was to build the ultimate foundation. And he believed. I guarantee he believed we could be where we are today.”
It was Fricker's baby that got us here, and it's the foundation of his legacy as a central figure – perhaps the central figure – in America's evolution as a soccer country.
“Without Werner, everything that's come [since] – I don't think we would have had the chance to do it,” said Kevin Payne, Toronto FC's president and general manager, whom Fricker hired as U.S. Soccer's national administrator, or executive director, in 1989. “I think that Werner is the single individual who deserves the most credit for starting the National Team programs on the right track and getting the World Cup to the U.S. And everything else since then is history.
“Our federation would not be where it is today without Werner. He was as important a president as the federation has ever had.”
Fricker, after he was beaten by Alan Rothenberg in the federation's 1990 presidential election, said that the growth of the various National Teams, which would rise massively in prominence in the years to follow, was his real legacy – he believed winning was how we'd win respect – but it was 1994 that alerted the world to a sleeping giant and provided the core, in all aspects, for what has followed.
And he never had a doubt it was going to occur.
“My father didn't do things and expect it not to happen,” says Werner Jr., who worked alongside his father in the family business – real estate, home-building, land development and commercial construction – during his presidency. “I think he was convinced it was going to come here. Obviously, you can't sit back, you have to work; I saw my father work in all kinds of areas throughout his life, and he was a great salesman. Sometimes you've just got to walk into a room and you've got to say the right things, and he was really good at that. I think he made those guys believe in him and believe in the United States.”
The starting point for Fricker, who died in 2001, was those qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics.
He was born in 1936 in a German community in Yugoslavia, raised in war-torn Austria, and moved as a teen to the U.S., where he raised a family, built his business and involved himself in the soccer scene in and around Philadelphia. He played for the mighty German-Hungarians, well enough to make the National Team pool, and after his experience in Mexico became involved in administration, climbing the ranks within the Eastern Pennsylvania state association, to vice president of the U.S. Soccer Federation in 1974 and executive vice president in 1975. He took charge of the federation just before the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Soccer was the best-attended sport at the L.A. Games, and the final sold out the Rose Bowl, which stunned FIFA and opened a door for the '94 bid. Fricker first pursued the 1986 World Cup, as a “last-minute” fill-in after Colombia pulled out, a nod that went to Mexico. That experience proved valuable when he turned his attention to 1994.
“He put his heart and soul behind [the 1986 bid],” said Werner Jr., who followed his father into soccer administration and serves as a commissioner at large of the Federation’s Adult Council, in addition to roles with U.S. Adult Soccer, the Eastern Pennsylvania Soccer Association and Pennsylvania's United Soccer League. “Everybody said we had no chance, and some people said later on that that was just an exercise to try to work for '94, and that's not how my father worked. If he was going to do something, he was going all out. And he worked hard on that one, and he worked hard on '94.
“He spent a lot of time away from our business and away from his personal life to work on all these things. He had a whole lot of really good people working with him. He put in a lot of time and really believed it was going to happen. I think it was the right time for FIFA to come here. I think FIFA wanted to come here.”
Fricker had a tremendous team working on the project, one that included his predecessor, Gene Edwards, as well as future U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, former NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam, former U.S. Soccer communications direcor Jim Trecker, future U.S. Soccer Treasurer and U.S. Adult Soccer Association president Richard Groff, and 1984 Olympic organizing veteran Scott LeTellier, the chief author of the bid.
“He was an interesting guy,” said Gulati, U.S. Soccer’s President since 2006, who was chairman of the federation's international games committee under Fricker. “He was very demanding, very hard-working, [and] he wasn't any more demanding on those around him than he was on himself.”
He was a tough guy who prospered through a blue-collar work ethic, “kind of a classic American success story,” Payne said. “He was not a big talker. He certainly would tell you what he thought – he usually knew exactly what he thought – but he wasn't a guy who made speeches or anything like that. He had deep-seated convictions, and he was so passionate about them that he caused other people to believe that these were things that were going to happen, going to come true.”
Fricker had set up lines of credit, through his own bank accounts, to fund the National Team programs, and he and LeTellier mortgaged their homes to finance the World Cup bid documents, which cost $500,000. FIFA was interested in the U.S. after 1984, and the mechanism for selecting a host wasn't nearly as complicated as it is today.
“It's become a much more rigorous process now,” Gulati explained. “We had a few events we hosted for [FIFA executive committee] members and so on. At that time, FIFA's leadership – [President Joao] Havelange and Sepp Blatter, the general secretary – they had a lot more sway in the way things went.”
It was important also to convince FIFA vice president Guillermo Cañedo, Mexico's top soccer official, Gulati said, and Fricker and Co. did so. FIFA awarded the 1994 tournament to the U.S., which was battling Brazil and Morocco, on July 4, 1988.
“When they switched the decision date to July 4 from July 3, we felt better about things,” Gulati said. “But we weren't sure until they walked out and told us.”
Fricker wouldn't preside over the World Cup. FIFA wasn't happy with the direction in which preparations were heading, with some of the decisions made by Fricker – “an independent guy” who “set his mind on doing certain things and wanted to do it his way,” Werner Jr. says – and with some of his associations, and they pushed Rothenberg, the architect of soccer's success at the L.A. Olympics, to run for president in 1990.
“Werner ran afoul of FIFA in some ways,” Payne said. “He signed a contract with a company, Soccer USA Partners, backed by a group out of favor with FIFA, so there were a number of people in the halls of FIFA who wanted Werner replaced.”
Rothenberg won the election and turned the '94 tournament into the most successful World Cup in history – the most profitable and best-attended.
Fricker was hurt by the loss, by how it came about, “but I don't think he was bitter,” his son says. “He calmed down for a couple of weeks and went back to work. He served on and on for the next number of years until he got sick and died. He worked with Alan and he worked with Bob Contiguglia after that. He believed in the game and believed in soccer in the United States. He wasn't going to go away.”
Rothenberg says his relationship with Fricker was, at the outset, “strained, to say the least.” He grew to admire the man.
“A lesser man, a man less committed to the game and less of a human being would have either walked away and wiped his hands of it all and just said, 'If that’s what the soccer people think about me after all I've done, forget about it,' ” Rothenberg said. “Or he could have been spiteful and vengeful. To the contrary, he stayed committed, he remained on the board of the World Cup, he remained as immediate past president on the board of the federation. Any time I called on him for help, he stood up and did it. He was, in my vernacular, a real mensch.”
Fricker attended games in every venue and, his son says, was impressed with what Rothenberg accomplished.
“Alan brought a different perspective to the federation,” Payne said. “He had a bigger vision of what the World Cup could become. He was more comfortable in many ways dealing with the international business community, with CEOs of companies, with the major broadcasters. He had more experience in that area. So I think ultimately for U.S. Soccer, it probably worked out for the best that each of them had responsibility at the times that they did.”
Fricker's importance to American soccer can't be quantified.
“He put down the foundation, without which none of the things that have happened in the last 20 years could have taken place,” Rothenberg said. “Others of us built on that foundation, but without the foundation, everything would have crumbled. He's a true builder.”
-- Scott French