When President Bill Clinton came onto the field at the Children’s Aid Society on 118th Street in Harlem on Monday, May 17, Juan Pablo Angel, the star of the New York Red Bulls, rolled toward him one of the soccer balls that he had just been using in a clinic for 30 local schoolchildren. Instead of picking the ball up and carrying it to the podium to convey that Mr. Clinton had accepted an invitation to join the USA Bid Committee, as honorary chairman, to bring the FIFA World Cup to the United States in 2018 or 2012, the former president adjusted his stride and struck the ball back to the center of the field. Mr. Angel kicked it back again, and Mr. Clinton returned it, this time with more oomph.
“His first touch wasn’t so good, so I gave him another chance,” Mr. Angel joked.
Mr. Clinton huddled away from the media with the some of the other Red Bulls before going over to shake the hands of the kids. He could be seen lifting his knee repeatedly in the air, looking like an excited but debonair flamingo.
“He was saying that Pele years ago had shown him how to stand on one leg and kind of juggle the ball with his thigh,” Chris Albright, a Red Bulls defender, explained later. He said Pele was shocked at how well he did, and the president responded, ‘Hey, I’m not that old. I’ve still got some left in me.'”
Although Mr. Clinton did not play soccer growing up in Arkansas, his daughter, Chelsea, was on a team by the age of 5. At the podium, he expressed his many emotional connections to the beautiful game and made the case for why the World Cup should come back to the United States and what it could do for the culture and economy.
“In 1994, in Chicago, at Wrigley Field*, I became the first American president to ever watch a World Cup game on American soil, and I have really been grateful ever since that I had a chance to be president during an American World Cup. That World Cup realized a surplus of 50 million dollars. It allowed for the creation of Major League Soccer W.O.R.K.S. and the U.S. Soccer Foundation, organizations that spearheaded the development of playing fields like the one we are standing on now.”
Last week, the committee that Mr. Clinton now honorarily heads, which includes Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger, Drew Carey (yes, that one), MLS commissioner Don Garber, Mia Hamm, Donna Shalala, Spike Lee and Henry Kissinger, submitted a bid detailing the country’s readiness. They named 18 possible cities as match sites, New York City included, each one having a stadium that can hold more than 76,000 people and all of the transportation and commercial infrastructure necessary to accommodate the soccer fans of the world. The committee estimated that more than a billion dollars in tickets would be sold and that each city would benefit from a $400 million to $600 million stimulus.
Mr. Clinton could be seen lifting his knee repeatedly in the air, looking like an excited but debonair flamingo.
When The Observer asked Comptroller John Liu, a Flushing native whose 9-year-old son has turned his attention from soccer to baseball, whether that number sounds right, he responded, “That number sounds wonderful.”
Mr. Clinton emphasized the draw of American diversity. “Hosting another World Cup in the United States, where about 12 percent of the population is foreign-born, will ensure high attendance for every match played,” he said, “because we’ll have lots of fans for every team that shows up.”
After the press conference, the former president posed with the children and the MLS stars and dignitaries. A girl a couple rows in front of Mr. Clinton turned around and told him that this afternoon’s clinic was the very first time she had ever played soccer. Mr. Clinton, who had just spent the last half-hour telling the media how popular soccer had become in the years since the first American-held World Cup in ’94, turned to the rest of the children and asked them, “For how many of you was this your first time playing soccer?” Almost all of them eagerly raised their hands high in the air.
“See, the growth potential is huge.” Mr. Clinton said.
*The game actually took place at Soldier Field.