ROME, JULY 7 -- The most often asked question of the 1990 World Cup has been, "Can the United States put on a successful 1994 World Cup?" The skepticism is worldwide. For many soccer lovers, the United States has to prove itself.
Foreign critics see an American public uninterested in soccer, major U.S. television networks unwilling to gamble on the event and corporate sponsors yet to be persuaded to invest. They fear an absence of passion in the stands, dislike the prospect of distance and expense in traveling from site to site and worry that their game may be changed to accommodate TV.
American officials tried to put fears to rest at a news conference Friday, trotting out Henry Kissinger, vice chairman of the World Cup '94 Organizing Committee. But the immediate reaction from foreign writers was that they failed.
"It's too bad Kissinger came late, only took a few questions, had few specifics and had to leave," said a Dutch newsman, whose reaction was typical of the worldwide contingent of newsmen who packed a conference room in Olympic Stadium. "What better chance could the Americans have had on a day when there was no game and nothing much to write about but to have said something -- anything? All they said was, everything's going to be fine."
The most critical questions pertain to TV. Earlier this week NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol said his network probably would not be interested in showing the '94 Cup. But the organizing committee could take some hope from remarks by ABC Sports President Dennis Swanson.
While Swanson said that American interest did not justify purchasing the TV rights for the entire tournament, he added that "if the deal is right, we would be interested in a few games."
The indication is clear that the organizers' best hope at this point is a combination with cable and major network. As host country, American television will be responsible for feeding the games to the rest of the world -- an expensive undertaking.
FIFA, soccer's worldwide governing body, hopes to settle the television contract by the end of the year.
"I do think it will be difficult for soccer to catch on unless the United States Soccer Federation catches fire and they eventually establish a professional outdoor league," said Kevin O'Malley, senior vice president of sports for Turner Boadcasting.
Most observers believe American interest in the '94 World Cup can be increased if the country has a contending team. Without a major outdoor league, the United States must rely all the more on the resourcefulness of its coach. Bob Gansler has been under fire from several writers who want him replaced by a "big name" who also would be a more effective "ambassador" for the game. The name of West Germany's coach, Franz Beckenbauer, has been brought up, but he wouldn't come cheaply.
In fact, he may not come at all. Sunday's New York Times reported that Beckenbauer will join the World Cup '94 Organizing Committee to do marketing and promotional work.
Werner Fricker, chairman of the committee, stoutly defended Gansler at Friday's news conference, giving him a "vote of confidence."
Foreign journalists' fear of empty stadiums in 1994 seems unlikely to be realized. If the games are marketed well and tickets are reasonably priced, even first- and second-round games should be well-attended, U.S. observers believe. Kissinger emphasized "community" support would be enlisted, and cited large crowds for soccer at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Soccer Federation has established Soccer USA Partners, a marketing agent to promote the U.S. team and obtain corporate sponsors. Some potential sponsors have a wait-and-see attitude.
"It's a pretty wise decision by FIFA to come to the United States," said Hank Steinbrecher, director of sports marketing for Gatorade, at a 1990 Soccer Industry Council of America symposium. "We see their decision as purely an economical decision. They're here to make money and that's what it should be all about."
But he added: "We question whether or not the organizations that currently exist can develop merchandising and marketing plans. We also think that the USSF has historical and structural constraints to deliver on sports marketing programs.
"The U.S. Soccer Federation is full of nice people, but they're generally an amateur organization. They lack professional infrastructure."
Another concern voiced at the news conference is the distance among host cities in the United States. But Scott LeTellier, president of the World Cup '94 Organizing Committee, said travel would be kept to a minimum. Planes rather than trains, as in Italy, would be the primary means of travel, he said.
Picking the venues -- probably 12 -- would seem to be the easiest part. Currently, 31 sites in 27 areas are under consideration. Even if most meet all of the committee's requirements by December, it would appear hard to pick a bad spot. Even a city of 42,000, Corvallis, Ore., offers a convincing argument that, as one of its spokesmen put it, "We'd give the World Cup a real sense of importance, and it wouldn't get lost like in a larger town."
Corvallis's mayor was among his city's delegation. Twenty-five groups in all toured Italia '90 sites.
Washington still is considered a strong contender for some middle-round games. The top-rated sites include Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and the Rose Bowl. New Haven, Conn., would probably be the New York area location unless arrangements could be worked out with Giants Stadium.Special correspondent Steven Goff in Washington contributed to this report.