When the U.S. Soccer Federation informed the sport's world governing body in February 1987 of its intention to bid for the 1994 World Cup finals, people laughed.

"And rightfully so," USSF Treasurer Paul Stiehl said. "Back then we were the underdog."

When a source close to the decision-making process last July said the United States was "in the pole position" to be named as the host country by the Federation Internationale de Football Association, people roared.

How could a country without a national outdoor professional league, without an even-close-to-world-class national team and without a tradition of success in any aspect of the sport have the nerve -- some said gall -- to ask for soccer's holy grail?

"Back then," USSF President Werner Fricker said, "that was a legitimate question."

Soccer traditionalists would argue it still is a legitimate question. But FIFA's executive committee broke with tradition Monday in Zurich. It voted the World Cup to the United States over Morocco and Brazil.

In doing so, it surprised no one.

The story of how the USSF, an essentially volunteer organization, turned the unthinkable into the expected is one with many chapters and many characters. The beginning reads like a fable, the middle like a self-help guide to entrepreneurial success. The end, of course, reads like a fairy tale.

In October 1982, Colombia said it would be unable to host the 1986 World Cup. With a country capable of mobilizing in half the time normally allotted to host nations, the USSF sprang into action. And directly onto its face.

In less than a month the following spring, it compiled and submitted a bid proposal that, while being much more elaborate than one submitted by Mexico, "had no substance," one U.S. soccer official recalled. Further handicapping its efforts was the then financially troubled North American Soccer League. It was using rules that differed from FIFA's Laws of the Game, and it was being perceived by many as being the driving force behind a bid that, if successful, might save it from folding. Finally, the USSF attempted to pressure FIFA into naming it as the replacement host. Instead of federation officials, international stars Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, both of whom had played in the NASL, and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger were the main people involved in the bid's presentation. Predictably, FIFA -- a staid, ritualistic organization whose leader is only half-jokingly said to be more powerful than the pope -- would have none of it.

The USSF official in charge of this escapade -- which helped send the USSF more than $1 million into debt and nearly into bankruptcy -- was Werner Fricker.

"Werner is not a man who likes to lose," Stiehl said.

Fricker, 52, is a native of Yugoslavia and a resident of Horsham, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. A highly successful club player, he was a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic team.

When he stopped playing in 1969, Fricker began administrating. By 1974, he was USSF vice president. A year later, he became USSF executive vice president, a position he held until becoming president.

After he and Stiehl helped the USSF get its financial affairs in order, Fricker set about reversing one of the few setbacks of his soccer and business career.

This effort had a few built-in advantages over the one in 1983. First, instead of a few weeks, the USSF had five months to prepare its bid and nine months to line up advocacy and financing for it. Next, the NASL had been replaced by the American Soccer League, which is playing within FIFA rules. Last, the federation, rocked by the '83 debacle, had been rebuilt, with a more solid foundation.

"We learned from 1983," Fricker said. "In 1983, we were not a stable federation and we did not have FIFA's respect. We were kind of a rebel. But in the last three years, we stabilized the federation, made it financially sound. And we didn't cause problems for FIFA. We earned their respect."

All of this was important, but, once achieved, it would have meant nothing without several other improvements on the 1983 effort.

Soon after the USSF declared its intentions to FIFA, Fricker led the formation of World Cup USA 1994 Inc., a nonprofit subsidiary created for the sole purpose of bringing the World Cup finals to the United States. Then, Fricker almost immediately called upon the services of a firm formed and headed by a person he had met through his participation in Republican politics and a soccer public relations veteran. For the next eight months, World Cup USA 1994 operated out of the in-home office of Jim Trecker -- a publicist based near New York, whose soccer public relations experience included time with the original Washington Diplomats and the offices of Eddie Mahe Jr. and Associates, a Washington-based politcal consulting firm.

"We hired those people to provide specific services we could not provide within the federation," Fricker said. "And it allowed us to keep from having to pull people away from other federation projects in order to work on what really is a massive undertaking."

In short, Fricker brought in hired guns -- and an election mentality.

"This task was not indifferent to an election; you're just dealing with a much smaller electorate," he said. "This was not like a 100-yard dash, where you train and train and then you are in control of the outcome. You do the best job you can, but then all you can do is hope and pray."

But the idea here was that when hope-and-prayer time came along, something less than divine intervention would be necessary for victory. In a very well-orchestrated fashion, World Cup USA 1994 acquired the money, the experts and the influence it needed.

The $1.2 million-$1.5 million needed to finance the bid came from a variety of sources large and small. On the modest end of the scale were T-shirts and posters, of which several thousand were sold, and contributions from state soccer associations. On the big-bucks end were $5,000 memberships in an organization called the Founders Club, of which only 94 were made available, and $50,000 corporate sponsorships, of which 12 were sold.

The experts were equally varied. Former NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam assisted in a survey of prospective game sites. Scott LeTellier, a California attorney who was among Peter Ueberroth's close advisers when Ueberroth was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee chairman, helped with the writing of the bid and secured contracts with prospective game sites. George Toma, groundskeeper for the Harry S Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City, Mo., worked on developing and demonstrating to FIFA a process by which stadiums with artificial turf could convert to natural turf.

Mahe's firm helped pave the way to officials within the federal agencies from which certain guarantees of cooperation had to be obtained. It also helped obtain a congressional resolution supporting the bid and access to President Reagan, whose personal assistance included a meeting with FIFA President Joao Havelange last November in Washington. Other advisers were Kissinger, former secretary of transportation Drew Lewis and Warner Communications Chairman Steven J. Ross.

No wonder the U.S. officials had been so confident.

"I became confident we were going to get it last September when we delivered the bids {to FIFA headquarters in Zurich}," Stiehl said. "I looked at the size of their bid books and they looked at the size of ours. They seemed so surprised by the professionalism of our bid and by the fact that we were dead serious. I think it set them back on their heels and they were playing catch-up from there on. Then, I could just see it in their faces. When I got back to the hotel, I called Werner and said, 'Get ready to host the World Cup.' "

For Stiehl, the timing was right. Installed as director of World Cup USA 1994 in January when the operation became full-time and moved from the Mahe firm's office to an office of its own on K Street NW, Stiehl would have been out of what might be the perfect job for him if the United States had not been named as host.

"I hate jobs where I go to work in the morning and know exactly what I'm going to do that day," he said.

Stiehl, 40, was born in West Germany, but for the most part grew up in New York. He attended the University of Maryland, where he played for the Terrapins soccer team that tied Michigan State for the national championship in 1968. He helped found the mid-Maryland Soccer Association in 1974, and became president of the Maryland State Soccer Association in 1978. His involvement with the USSF began in 1984, when he became a member of its finance committee. He became its budget director in 1985 and its treasurer in '86.

A resident of Beltsville, he has been involved in many businesses, from owning two Maaco auto painting and body shops to being a consultant specializing in business mergers and acquisitions. Now, however, directing World Cup USA 1994 is his full-time occupation.

And nobody's laughing.

Said Stiehl: "We were quietly confident from the start that we could pull off this coup -- and it is a coup. I mean if we had to go to Vegas 15 months ago and put bets on this, what would the odds have been? We just went out and did the job."

May 1983 -- United States loses to Mexico in a bid to replace Colombia as host of the 1986 World Cup.

Feb. 1987 -- USSF informs Federation Internationale de Football Association, soccer's world governing body, that it intends to bid to become host of the 1994 World Cup.

April 1987 -- USSF forms World Cup USA 1994, Inc., a non-profit organization created for the purpose of compiling and submitting the U.S. bid.

Sept. 1987 -- United States formally submits its bid at FIFA headquarters in Zurich.

Nov. 1987 -- FIFA President Joao Havelange visits Washington and meets with President Reagan at the White House.

Jan. 1988 -- World Cup USA 1994 opens its own office in Washington and USSF Treasurer Paul Stiehl is named director.

April 1988 -- FIFA technical inspection group tours 16 of the 18 proposed game sites listed in the U.S. bid.

July 4, 1988 -- FIFA Executive Committee votes the 1994 World Cup to the United States over Morocco and Brazil.