With the 2026 World Cup cities being selected in New York on Thursday, FrontRowSoccer.com will look back at the history of the bids with a special story. The U.S. has expressed interest or threw its hat into the ring on the possibility of hosting five World Cups – 1978, 1986, 1994, 2010 and 2026. Today, editor Michael Lewis starts a multi-part series when, for the first time the U.S. Soccer Federation expressed interest in hosting the world’s greatest sporting extravaganza. In 1969, the U.S. Soccer Football Association, announced it wanted to hold the 1978 World Cup in the USA.
Lewis found the original press release and spoke to the man who wrote it – Clive Toye, who was head of publicity and promotions for the USSF, and eventually went onto sign Pele as president of the Cosmos.
First of a four-part series
By Michael Lewis
Years before the United States bid for the 1994 World Cup, years prior to the failed bid for the 1986 world championship and decades before the combined bid with Mexico and Canada was granted to host the 2026 competition, this country’s governing soccer body expressed interest in the 1978 World Cup.
On Sept. 8, 1969, the U.S. Soccer Football Association, today better known as U.S. Soccer or the U.S. Soccer Federation, declared it wanted to host the world’s greatest extravaganza for the very first time in nine years.
It certainly was a bold statement for a sport whose first division professional league was on shaky ground, if not quicksand. Depending on your perspective, North American Soccer League had just completed its second year of existence (the National Professional Soccer League was around in 1967 and many historians count that as the NASL’s unofficial first year, but that’s a story for another time). The league had dwindled down to five teams in 1969 and the NASL and the USSFA was looking to gain publicity anyway it could.
Clive Toye, who was keeping the league alive, first in the visitors’ locker room at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta and with commissioner Phil Woosnam (before it moved to regular offices), had an idea: expressing interest in the 1978 World Cup. Forget about the fact that the USA had failed to qualify for the competition in five tries over 19 years.
At the time, Toye was chairman of the promotion and publicity committee.
This is what he wrote:
SOCCER: AMBITION UNLIMITED
AND A MAJOR PROGRAM NOW UNDERWAY
The most ambitious development program in an American sport has, as its ultimate target, the hosting of the world’s largest single-sport tournament … the World Cup of Soccer.
The United States Soccer Football Association’s newly formed National Development Committee has recommended to its National Commission that a bid be made for the 1978 World Cup finals.
This bid is to follow the World Cup finals of 1970 (Mexico) and 1974 (West Germany) is just one move in a dramatic National Development plan aimed at taking soccer to every corner of the country and to every prospective player and spectator.
USSFA president Erwin Single comments: “There is every indication that for the first time, soccer is being discovered from within and is no longer considered an important sport. Participation at schools, camps and youth recreation facilities throughout the United States is now at a record high. The development plan is in most capable hands at all levels and no effort will be spared to ensure the plan’s success.”
The National Development Plan, worked out at Chicago under the chairmanship of Gene Edwards of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, calls for a 7-point approach to soccer’s growth with the structure laid down prior to the appoints of a National Coach sometimes within the next twelve months.
The points are:
1) To establish a national youth program – the Youth of America Soccer Program for boys seven to 15
2) To increase participation at all other levels
3) To elevate standards of playing, coaching and refereeing
4) The development of and competition for U.S. national teams at professional, amateur and youth levels
5) Assist the North American Soccer League in strongly establishing a coast-to-coast professional league
6) To stage an international youth tournament in the United States in 1973
7) To apply to host the 1978 World Cup finals
Under chairman Edwards first vice president of USSFA, are five regional directors … Harry Saunders of New York (East), George Fishwick of Chicago (Midwest), Don Greer of San Francisco (Far West), Dane Petersen of Denver (Rockies) and Clyde Partin of Atlanta (South). Phil Woosnam of the NASL and John McKeon of E. Stroudsburg State College, presenting college soccer, complete the National Development Committee.
Last year, Toye talked about that press release and some of what transpired five decades ago, which apparently had some smoke and mirrors.
“We had to do things at different levels.” he said. “At the lower level we had as part of that development committee, was all mass about youth soccer and getting kids to play and taught. But at the top level, to get attention, there was only, we felt, two things: the World Cup and Pele. That would light things up and make people who didn’t even know about soccer realize something big was happening and also with those two, there were plenty of soccer fans in this country. But if you lived in Little Italy, you were interested in Italy, nothing else. If you lived in parts of Florida, they were Colombian and that’s what they cared about. Mostly there was interest and they knew what their own team was doing.
“When you mention World Cup to thing – whoop! everybody’s interested. Woah! who’s going to qualify? When is it going to be? It’s the World Cup. So, we knew that would attract attention of everybody who had the faintest interest in the game as well as alert people who didn’t have an interest that there was something important coming once we could get it to come.”
“It was similar with Pele. Nobody disliked Pele. … Everyone from Mick Jagger to whomever was going to Studio 54 to see Pele. He was rather big. So, we felt those two things were obvious. It wasn’t that we had committee meetings to decide that. Phil and I decided that and set out to make it happen. The World Cup we wanted as soon as we could get it, as soon as it was feasible. I forget the realistic target in our minds. but we set out to get it and started going to talk to people that we knew.”
When he was Cosmos president, he managed to convince Pele to sign with the club in 1975.
Toye even gave then FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous a head’s up about the USSFA’s announcement. He was Rous’ ghost writer.
“So, it wasn’t difficult to get a hold of Sir Stanley Rous from my perspective and say, ‘Oy, silly stuff is going to happen. We’re going to try to get the World Cup,” Toye said with a chuckle. “It doesn’t mean that it got us a lot of votes, but it did mean we were able to intrude into the situation early on and get people to listen, open their years to what we were planning.”
As for the reaction at home and internationally, well, it was non-existent to mixed. According to some online research at Newspapers.com only a handful of papers ran the story, which was reported by Reuters and United Press International (UPI). Associated Press probably wrote a story and shared it, but no version could not be found. Among the papers that ran the stories were the Philadelphia Inquirer and San Mateo Times.
“I wouldn’t say it was a massive reaction,” Toye said with a laugh. “I don’t recall precisely, but I think we could have stood on the top of the Statue of Liberty and made the announcement and we wouldn’t have gotten too much publicity out of it.
“It got attention. It didn’t get the sort of attention that it started to get when once people thought, ‘Wait a minute! Are these people serious? I’m sure a lot of people laughed at us and said, ‘What a couple of bloody idiots they are.”
As we all know Argentina hosted the 1978 World Cup.
The U.S. finally got an opportunity to host a men’s World Cup – USA ’94 and will co-host the sport’s greatest show on earth along with Mexico and Canada in 2026.
“Well, our intent was to make soccer an American game to be do everything that was needed to be done to make it so and to intrude into the lives of people in every day as soccer intrudes into the lives of people elsewhere in the world,” Toye said. “It may sound ridiculous. When i see a common garden TV commercial and part of it is a kid kicking the ball, or you go to the store up the road, there is a soccer store and further one there is a soccer field and another soccer field. None of that stuff excited in those days.
“We had a helluva job to find a soccer field in Baltimore in ’67,” Toye added with a laugh. “We couldn’t get goalposts. I had to go to Max Doss at East 86th Street [in Manhattan]. That was the closest place to Baltimore to get soccer equipment. We had to get the goalposts manufactured by somebody because he couldn’t buy bloody goalposts. You had to go all the way to New York get uniforms, etc. It didn’t exist, nothing. A bit different now.”
Just a bit.
Tuesday: The 1986 and 1994 bids