The bid to land the World Cup on American soil sometime in the next 12 years has received its biggest stamp of approval, thanks to a soccer dad who doubles as one of the most recognizable former heads of state in the world.
Former President Bill Clinton was introduced as the honorary chairman of the USA Bid Committee on Monday during a ceremony at a sparkling new youth soccer facility in Harlem, a site Clinton noted wouldn’t exist without the interest initially sparked during the last U.S. World Cup in 1994.
Clinton—who greeted children at FC Harlem Field with a swift kick of a soccer ball before he was officially introduced in his new role—attended matches during the 1994 World Cup and the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and on Monday preached that he’ll help in any way possible to land the World Cup in either 2018 or 2022.
“We want the world to look more like the world of soccer,” Clinton said. “We want people to think more like these kids think when they play. We want people to relate to other people in other lands like they do on the soccer field … They play by a set of rules, and we’re all better off for having tried. That’s what we need more of.”
The announcement comes three days after bid chairman and president of U.S. Soccer Sunil Gulati presented the official bid book to FIFA during a formal ceremony in Zurich. FIFA will name the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments on Dec. 2.
“Infrastructure, stadiums, hotels, all those things are easy,” Gulati said. “But we now need to convince them of the American spirit … that we will openly welcome the world. And I can think of no person better to help us do that than President Clinton.”
Clinton said he had no trepidations of backing the bid after the recent failure to land the 2016 Summer Olympics in Chicago, when President Barack Obama drew criticism for failing to help sway the International Olympic Committee’s decision to bring the games to the US.
“We got outworked by some of our competitors,” Clinton said. “One of the things I learned from the Olympics is that this not a one-week process. We’re going to work hard at this for seven months and see if we can prevail.”
Clinton—who is the only US president to sit in office during a World Cup on American soil—stressed that the country’s increased diversity and affinity for soccer since his tenure during the 1990s is one of the bid’s strongest points in landing the World Cup.
“People found even in 1994 that all the teams had local supporters living in America,” Clinton said. “And that’s happened on steroids now. This country is far, far more diverse than it was 16 years ago.”
Clinton also emphasized the positives of the country’s existing infrastructure, and that landing the World Cup would generate an economic stimulus between $400 million and $600 million for each host city.
“That will be very good for a lot families that are still hurting and a lot of communities still digging out from under the current economic crisis,” Clinton said.
Since leaving office in 2000, Clinton has worked largely in philanthropy, founding the William J. Clinton Foundation and leading recovery efforts for global natural disasters such as the 2007 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“I spend a lot of time in countries that are extremely poor, where kids have no playing fields and a lot of times never get to go to school,” said Clinton, flanked by school children just blocks from the Harlem office of his foundation. “But they know about soccer everywhere … and they play.”
Clinton admitted that his soccer knowledge as a youngster in the rural south was limited, but that like the majority of American parents over the last three decades, he discovered the sport first as a soccer dad.
“I didn’t know a single soul when I was growing up who played soccer,” Clinton said. “But my daughter was on a team from the time she was five years old. And I’ve seen it take over boys and girls sports, starting at an early age, all over America.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber—who is a member of the USA bid committee along the likes of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, comedian and Seattle Sounders FC part-owner Drew Carey and Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee—stressed that a US World Cup would provide an economic boon for FIFA and is the last untapped opportunity for the sport’s governing organization.
“A World Cup here would help take it over the top, giving (FIFA) the chance to really open up America and turn it into a true soccer nation,” Garber said.
New York Red Bulls players Juan Pablo Angel, Chris Albright and Seth Stammler were also in attendance at the event, and ran a brief soccer clinic at the field before Clinton arrived.
“I was 15 years old in 1994, a very impressionable sophomore in high school,” said Albright, who was a member of the 2006 US team at the World Cup in Germany. “That World Cup brought soccer into people’s living rooms, into people’s backyards. That formed the foundation for the game here.”
Nick Firchau is a reporter for MLSSoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.