ORLANDO, FLA., AUG. 5 -- The country known around the world as the sleeping giant of soccer may have opened one eye today when attorney Alan Rothenberg, 54, scored a stunning victory in the presidential election of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
He takes office immediately and will serve through 1994, when the U.S. will host the World Cup. He swept into office on a wave of discontent with incumbent Werner Fricker and promises of injecting sound business practices into an organization plagued by ineptitude. Never before in the 77-year history of the USSF -- a tightly knit, mostly volunteer organization that administers amateur and professional soccer in the United States -- had a nonmember been elected president.
"Like Ricky Davis said, 'It was a golden moment, and I seized it,' " said Rothenberg of the former national team player who delivered an impassioned nominating speech just before ballots were cast.
"Internally, it's time to open up the role of president to all of the membership, to get all of them to pull together. Externally, we need to maximize the opportunity of the World Cup, and the development of a pro league between now and 1994."
The presidential vote climaxed a whirlwind weekend of political intrigue, from hit mail slipped under doors to an alleged last-minute effort by FIFA -- the sport's international governing body -- to swing the election via an overseas phone call early Sunday morning.
Rothenberg, who officially announced his candidacy two weeks ago, got 63 percent of the votes cast by the 350 delegates. He will wield great power over such entities as World Cup 1994, the Washington, D.C., organization in charge of preparing for the world championship tournament.
He beat Fricker -- president since 1984 -- and USSF treasurer Paul Stiehl in a shocking conclusion to a highly polarized convention.
"I hope to God what has been done in the last six years does not get torn down too quickly," said Fricker. "FIFA gave the World Cup to this country, not to the USSF alone, and this country is quite capable of staging the World Cup for FIFA in 1994."
Stiehl and Fricker had waged a two-man battle for more than a year when Rothenberg, commissioner of soccer during the 1984 Olympics and former president of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers, announced his candidacy.
He is a senior partner in the Latham-Wilkins law firm of Los Angeles and president of the California Bar Association.
Fricker rescued the USSF from financial ruin after taking office in 1984, but in recent years was criticized for unsound business practices and failure to lure corporate support for soccer. Chiquita Inc., one of three national team sponsors, recently pulled out of the program. It had been paying $1 million a year as a national team sponsor.
Fricker's problems not only eroded his support among the USSF membership, but also caused concern at FIFA, which reportedly began searching for an alternative candidate more than six months ago and chose Rothenberg because of his success with the Olympic soccer tournament. The 1984 competition attracted 1.4 million spectators. He owned part of the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League in the late 1970s.
The structure of the World Cup 1994 organizing committee and the status of president and chief operating officer Scott LeTellier almost certainly will be affected by Rothenberg's election. LeTellier was appointed by the USFF on Feb. 20, 1989, and although he and Rothenberg worked together on the Los Angeles Olympics their relationship was strained.
Rothenberg refused to confirm or deny LeTellier's continuing role. Although the organizing committee and the USSF are responsible for World Cup preparations, the event itself is owned and controlled by FIFA.
A further complication is that Fricker, Stiehl and Vice President Hank des Bordes serve on the board of directors of the organizing committee. They serve regardless of their USSF positions, but only des Bordes was reelected yesterday.
Stiehl broke with Fricker in 1988 over a dispute regarding the presidency of the previous World Cup committee, which was dissolved when World Cup 1994 was formed.