Much was made in the soccer world about President Barack Obama’s show of support for soccer in America. During the 2008 election, many stories reported Obama was a life-long West Ham fan, although the root of that rumor came down to a passage he once wrote proclaiming how impressed he was with the dedication of his cousins, who lived in England on behalf of the club they support. In 2009, the mainstream press picked up on the theme, as it was learned President Obama had written a letter to FIFA on behalf of the U.S. World Cup bid. However, nearly every journalist missed the fact that Obama was following in former President Ronald Reagan’s footsteps.
As early as October 14, 1982, President Reagan publicly showed support for soccer in America when he hosted two local youth teams at the White House. Flanked by international superstar Pele and American star Steve Moyers, Reagan’s comments shows he knew only the basics of the World Cup (specifically he asked if it was, in fact, held once every four years). However, Reagan’s awareness would grow over time and he would become a crucial factor in the U.S. winning the 1994 World Cup hosting bid.
The following spring (May 3, 1983), President Reagan welcomed Team America to the White House. Team America was a short-lived gimmicky concept team that featured only Americans and they played in Washington D.C. in the NASL’s final days. At the reception Reagan became the first president to publicly pronounce a desire to see the World Cup held in the United States. However, Team America tried to compete in NASL with what was essentially the U.S. National Team minus the stars who were good enough to play for other NASL teams. Any concept of team building for the U.S. National Team was lost when Team America players criticized those like Steve Moyers who remained with other NASL teams.
Reagan “shocked” the soccer world, FIFA itself, and the entire American Press with his unprecedented direct appeal to FIFA to support the USA ’94 bid. The letter marked the first of its kind by a major world leader on behalf of his nation’s soccer federation. Reagan followed up his letter with a wine and dine at the White House of FIFA President Havelange. By all accounts, Havelange was a bit of an ego-freak so the invitation to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the height of the Cold War was quite a coup for soccer’s role in the world order. Perhaps this attention to detail by President Reagan won the favor of the FIFA bosses and ultimately won the U.S. the Cup.
As the sitting president during the 1994 World Cup, Bill Clinton became the first American president to play host for the tournament. Clinton made (surprisingly) brief remarks in Chicago before the first game of the 1994 World Cup and attended the final of the USA hosted 1999 Women’s World Cup. However, Clinton was not a soccer fan. In fact, he irritated some life-long soccer fans when he admitted (on another occasion) that his following of the game was almost strictly limited to watching his daughter play youth soccer. This touches upon the long timer struggle by soccer fans in the U.S. to awake the public to the sport outside of the level of youth soccer. However, youth soccer has become a trend in the White House. Chelsea Clinton and the Obama daughters both played the youth game while living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Bush twins didn’t play soccer but while visiting Argentina they made time to visit the storied rivalry between Boca Juniors and River Plate.
While Clinton was the first president to have a child playing the game it was former President George Herbert Walker Bush who has the distinction of being the first president to actually have played the game as a child. However, it should be noted that it appears from his remarks that he did not compete in any organized manner (as it appears Obama did as a child in Indonesia). GHW Bush’s son was not raised playing the sport. However, George W. did make a rare pre-game phone call to the men’s national team just hours before their historic 2002 quarterfinal upset over Mexico. Bush wished the team luck, told them how proud the country was of them, and then added that he “… just hung up the phone a little ealier with the president of Mexico…. I didn’t declare victory yet, but I feel pretty confident.” President Teddy Roosevelt is the first president we can document as being aware of the game, as during one of his explorations of the Amazon River he is noted as referring to the game played by locals as appearing to be similar to “association soccer.”
The game has also been used by Presidents to score political points. President George W. Bush received some criticism for linking the Iraqi 2004 Olympic team’s success to America’s invasion of Iraq. Bush reminded the world that under Uday Hussein, the Iraqi team was regularly beaten and tortured for failure, and that they found their first international success of note after the Husseins were removed from power. While many remember Bush and the Iraqi team (including the team’s appeal not to be used in political ads or speeches), many missed how Bush regularly spoke of how he was motivated and touched by the story of an Afghanistan girl’s youth team that participated in a tournament he visited in Ohio. This sign of women’s progress in the country that was the War on Terror’s first battleground became a stump speech mainstay in the 2004 election.
Three decades earlier, it was President Gerald Ford who regularly used soccer in stump speeches. The former NFL draftee Ford campaigned extensively in the Pacific Northwest in 1976 and regularly mentioned the wonderful fans and teams in Seattle and Portland. He even hosted a team or two in the White House. This became the first time soccer teams were invited to the White House. Today, teams are invited usually only when they win the championship. In 2009, the Chicago Fire became an exception to that rule when then non-champs were invited to visit their fellow Chicago resident Barack Obama at the White House. However, an over-booked Obama was unable to meet the team, having also scheduled meetings with Democratic Senators and the Zimbabwe Prime Minister. Although this “snub” drew some negative coverage, the Fire still gave jerseys and shirts to the First Family. The press once again seized upon the fact that the President’s children played the sport at the youth level.
The Obama-Fire incident was not the only time a president ran into trouble with soccer. On a visit to the Newcastle (England) area, Jimmy Carter tried to win points by repeating the Newcastle Geordie fans’ chant. He made two mistakes. First, he repeated the chant in areas where Sunderland fans were more prominent than Newcastle fans. Secondly, according to soccer journalist extraordinaire Tim Vickery, he also butchered the quote.
In 2009, President Obama sent a letter to FIFA on behalf of the U.S. bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups just as Reagan had done two decades earlier. On June 22, Obama followed up by announcing he would attend the opening ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It will be the first time a sitting US President has attended a World Cup held outside America. It appears that as the sport gains popularity in America, acknowledging soccer will become a common political fixture as well. A quick note on sources: all info comes from the Presidential Archives except the recollection of Tim Vickery, which came from a May 2009 episode of World Soccer Daily. http://soccernet.espn.go.com/news/story?id=656525&sec;=worldcup2010&cc;=5901 is where you can find info about Obama attending the games in South Africa. For the Fire visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, check out http://www.suntimes.com/sports/soccer/fire/1620619,CST-SPT-fire13.article About the Author: Rory Miller is a high school history teacher and former head High School Coach for Muhlenberg North High School in Greenville, Ky. He was honored with the title “Head Coach of U-20 National Team for the micro-nation of Sealand” by the royal family of the Principality of Sealand. He holds a Master’s degree in History from the University of West Kentucky. Special thanks to Timothy S. Jones for editing work for this piece.