Bringing the World Cup home

Colin Barclay spent much of the early summer of 1994 in the basement of his family's Annapolis home, glued to the television with his older brother Devin watching the World Cup. Unable to get tickets themselves, they were searching for channels showing the world's biggest soccer event being played in the United States for the first time.

The Barclay boys, then 9 and 11, sons of a former college soccer player, were so fixated on the game they videotaped any match they could find.

"I'm pretty sure if you go down to my parents' basement, you can still find the VHS of Bulgaria versus Germany," Colin Barclay, now 25, recalled recently.

While the younger Barclay's skills couldn't match those of his brother, who signed a professional contract at age 18 and went on to play five years in Major League Soccer, his passion for the game never subsided. It led the Harvard graduate to leave his job working for a venture capitalist and private equity firm in New York to take a position 15 months ago as manager of operations for the committee trying to bring either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup back to the United States.

"For someone who grew up playing soccer, lived and breathed it for so many years, to have an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the game was something that was really meaningful to me," Barclay said. "I dropped everything to come participate."

Even his older brother is a bit jealous.

"It's pretty awesome," said Devin Barclay, who since retiring from soccer has become a record-setting field goal kicker at Ohio State. "It's a dream job for him. It would have been a dream job for me. Envious is an understatement. I'm really happy for him. He's the biggest soccer fan out there."

The job has taken Colin Barclay around the United States to visit cities and venues interested in hosting games in an effort to whitttle the list from around 70 to 18, which still includes Baltimore. Last month, it took Barclay to Zurich, Switzerland, where the world headquarters of FIFA, the sport's governing body, is located, for a presentation of the 1,000-page, five-volume bid book.

On Friday, it took Barclay and others on the seven-person committee to South Africa and Saturday he will be in Rustenburg watching the U.S. team play Ghana in the Round of 16.

Though Barclay didn't anticipate getting tickets to this year's World Cup games, that changed when the U.S. made it through to the knockout round with Wednesday's 1-0 stoppage time victory over Algeria. Barclay said before leaving that he has been invited to join the U.S. delegation for its next game.

"It's quite a privilege,":Barclay said Wednesday. "For that to be my first World Cup game, it's very special," Barclay said.

The bid observers program is designed to provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the event is put on. Barclay said that he will visit stadiums and other facilities involved in Johannesburg, Capetown and Durban during six-day program.

"We'll see everything from the stadium media centers to the actual game-day ops to the broadcast center, it's more than just the operations at the stadium," Barclay said. "Obviously there's a lot that goes into hosting a World Cup that the fans never see and we'll be exposed to all that as well."

For a former player who admittedly "didn't have too many highlights" and kiddingly calls himself "a strong team player" while at Harvard, going to South Africa during the World Cup as an observer might be more exciting than anything he has done with soccer since playing at McDonogh.

"It hasn't hit me yet," he said. "I'm unbelievably excited. For this to be my first chance, my first real opportunity to really sink my teeth in, it's a great way to do it. Fortunately I am also tacking on some free time to experience it as a fan with some friends and teammates from Harvard, I'll get the best of both worlds to be a spectator to soak in the culture and to see what goes on behind the scenes."

The bid will be announced in December, and David Downs, the executive director of the U.S. bid committee, said that a strong U.S. performance this year can't hurt.

"The growth of the sport in the United States is absolutely intertwined with the bid," Downs said Monday from South Africa. "It's not the sole influencing factor in the success or failure of the bid…but one of our key messages to FIFA is that the sport has come a considerable way since they had the vision to host the World Cup in the United States in 1994. This would be one more indicator of how successful that '94 World Cup was in developing the sport in the U.S."

According to Downs, the 1994 World Cup sold 3.5 million tickets, a record that still stands despite seeing the event expande from 24 teams to 32 teams. The bid committee has projected it can sell more than 5 million tickets in 2018 or 2022. Barclay said the United States presents a much more compelling case now than it did 22 years ago when the first bid was handed out.

"I think we all believe that the soccer economy has grown considerably, and that's one of our arguments," he said. "When FIFA took the daring but strategically sound decision to bring the World Cup here in 1994, it launched the game to new heights. But we don't feel like we achieved our true potential yet. We're at a tipping point, and if the World Cup were to come here in 2018 or 2022, we can really finish what we started."

In hopes of enhancing the chances of getting the bid — England and Russia have also put in bids for 2018 and 2022, along with a joint effort by The Netherlands and Belgium as well as Spain and Portugal – the bid committee is asking fans to sign an online petition (www.gousbid.com). Barclay said they are more than halfway to a bid of a million signatures.

"It's probably the biggest push we're making and the best way that we can show FIFA that we care and that we would be enthusiastic and hospitable hosts for the world's game," Barclay said. "We're pushing hard in that way to bring the World Cup to the United States."

If the United State is successful in its bid, Baltimore will try to bring the World Cup to M&T; Bank Stadium, which attracted a sellout crowd of over 72,000 last summer for an international friendly last summer between AC Milan and Chelsea and hopes to do the same again on July 31 for a match between Inter Milan and Manchester City.

Downs said that the final selection of venues won't happen until 2013 or 2017, but that Baltimore's involvement with soccer certainly can't hurt the city's chances.

"In the intervening years between now and when the final selection process would occur, everything a city can do to show its love for the game, its operational ability to handle games of such international magnitude would be a huge plus for their candidacy," Downs said. "Quite honestly, that's one of the selling points to FIFA."

For Barclay, it all started in the basement in Annapolis in the early summer of 1994.

"I know what kind of an impact it had on me and my brother, and how it inspired us and how it was our first exposure to international soccer," Barclay recalled. "The thought that I can have just a small hand in helping to inspire a whole generation of younger soccer players was just so profound that I felt that I had to be involved."

His mother said that she isn't surprised her younger son is still involved with soccer.

Along with the old VHS tapes are a pile of old birthday and Mother's Day cards. "I have more than a few that say, 'I love you Mom. Go Brazil', Liz Barclay said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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