Soccer / Sports

Fricker played key role in growth of US soccer

There was a time -- a brief and crucial time -- when the big decisions involving soccer in this country were made in a Bucks County, Pa., office complex.

On the list of important figures in U.S. soccer history, there's a place at the head table for a housing developer from Horsham, a former midfielder for the United German-Hungarians in Bucks County, who went on to run the U.S. Soccer Federation and head the effort that brought the 1994 World Cup to this country.

Given how soccer is run at its highest levels -- then and now -- Werner Fricker may even deserve credit for getting voted out of office four years before that '94 World Cup took place.

National-team players from his day haven't forgotten how Fricker, who died in 2001 at age 65, was central in getting the national team some compensation back when qualifying for the World Cup wasn't a foregone conclusion and there was no pro league in this country.

Talking last year about his goal that goes down as the most important in U.S. soccer history -- the one that got the Americans in the 1990 World Cup, starting a run of consecutive World Cup appearances that now stands at seven -- Paul Caligiuri mentioned his appreciation for how Fricker put his own money in to pay national-team players in the late '80s. That was his understanding, Caligiuri said.

In fact, what Fricker did, according former U.S. Soccer treasurer Richard Groff and Fricker's son, was go to a bank in Bucks County that he did business with and personally guarantee a line of credit.

"We weren't broke, but we didn't have much money," Groff said. "There's no question he would be thrilled that U.S. Soccer is now a $85-million-a-year business, that sponsorship is just incredible."

Fricker was a bridge of sorts. He had his own war stories of doing battle with FIFA, the world governing body, making sure the host country got its fair share of sponsorship money. Suffice it to say FIFA didn't always enjoy dealing with him, and he was proud of that.

"There were disagreements over the marketing rights," Groff said. "We always felt that the World Cup had to be in the best interests of U.S. soccer and the national team. He never moved off of that position."

In a 1994 interview, Fricker didn't consider the '94 World Cup to be his great achievement. That was a means to an end in his mind.

"My desire was to build the national teams," said Fricker, who had played for the United States in the qualifying rounds for the 1964 Olympics.

Everything flowed from qualifying for '90 and hosting in '94. Major League Soccer was born from those efforts. Soccer-specific stadiums such as PPL Park have become commonplace across the country.

If Fricker were in charge today, let's bet that current U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann would have a big role but not necessarily the same one. Fricker's plan for the U.S. in 1994 had been to have another German great, Franz Beckenbauer, take charge as technical director and manager of the U.S. effort. But the coach, Fricker said, would have been an American.

Fricker didn't claim to be a cuddly figure. His press relations weren't too good when he was president of the federation. His confidence was never shaken, even when he was deposed as president.

"No matter what the guys are talking about -- I know more about it," Fricker said in the 1994 interview.

"He brought a lot of good people into the program, from all over the country," said his son, Werner Fricker Jr., a longtime amateur soccer administrator at the state and national level. "One of his things was: 'What do we need to do to get the next level? We need this, but we don't have that.' "

His imprint carries to the current structure. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was a Fricker protege. That would please his father, Werner Fricker Jr. said.

Asked what his father would make of the graft and corruption that have been part of the soccer landscape at the highest levels, Fricker said, "My dad was a real honest guy. He wouldn't steal a penny off of anybody. When he saw things, whether it was in the business world or the soccer world or the soccer business world, it just disgusted him. It just blew his mind. That still goes on today. It doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me, there the same players, they're still there. They don't blow these guys out."

As for the landscape in this country, "I think he'd be very pleased," his son said. "I've said to Sunil a few times, after the performances of our national teams, I think he'd be satisfied. Not "fully satisfied. He was never fully satisfied.

"We're still an infant country playing soccer. The soccer-specific stadiums are fantastic. I think the league does very well. Everything they're doing is on track. Does it compare to the Bundesliga or the Serie A or the Premier League? Of course not. But we've got good games going on. We've come a long way."

What would Fricker be doing now?

"He and I would be going to Union games every weekend together," Groff said.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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