The U.S. game no one can watch?
U.S.' crucial World Cup qualifier on Saturday is only available on closed-circuit TV
In throwback to the 1980s, game can only be seen at handful of restaurants, bars
Similar scenario is happening in England; FIFA should develop own TV broadcaster
MIAMI -- The U.S. could clinch a World Cup berth on Saturday night, and not many American soccer fans will be watching.
That's the absurd situation we find ourselves in thanks to the screwy way that FIFA allows host countries to handle the video broadcast rights for World Cup qualifiers. As a result, the huge U.S.-Honduras game in San Pedro Sula (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET) will only be available in the U.S. on closed-circuit TV at a small number of bars and restaurants.
Keep in mind, we're talking about closed-circuit TV, not pay-per-view. In other words, you will not be able to see this game in your own home.
This is a trip back to the 1980s that nobody wants. The last event I saw on closed-circuit TV was the fight between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney more than 27 years ago.
How did this happen? I called Chuck Blazer, the general secretary of CONCACAF and a member of the FIFA executive committee, to find out. Blazer told me that for years, FIFA has allowed the host countries of World Cup qualifiers to sell the video rights to whomever they wish. Doing so, Blazer told me, allows national soccer federations to make much-needed money to support their operating expenses.
In the case of U.S.-Honduras, the Honduran federation sold the English- and Spanish-language video rights to a media company named Media World. ESPN, the usual broadcaster of U.S. games, was unable to reach a deal to buy the rights from Media World, nor were any other American cable or terrestrial TV outlets.
The result: No matter how much making the game available on television would satisfy U.S. soccer fans, draw the interest of casual fans and help to grow the sport here, Media World didn't feel as if it has an economic interest to do so. If you want to see the game, you'll have to spend $10 to $20 a head to go to one of the establishments showing the game in English (click here to find one) or in Spanish (click here).
Unfortunately, this trend may only be growing. On Saturday, England's World Cup qualifier at Ukraine will be shown for a fee on the Internet and not on any English television. The game doesn't mean much for England, which has already qualified, but you can be certain that important World Cup qualifiers won't be readily available to the public in the future, either.
And that's a problem FIFA needs to address. The sport's international governing body claims that it's for the good of the game, after all, and national-team games are part of the national public interest. This is FIFA's tournament. And just as FIFA can allow its federations to sell broadcast rights for the World Cup qualifiers they host, it also could add new stipulations that would make the games more accessible to the public at large, such as requiring that they be available on home televisions.
But that's not all. As I told Blazer, my cable provider now has a channel owned by the NFL (NFL Red Zone) that allows me to watch live broadcasts of every game in which a team is about to score. Why are NFL games getting more accessible than ever while World Cup qualifiers are getting less accessible? In fact, by asserting more control, FIFA could make more money (that it could pass on to its member associations) by starting its own FIFA TV channel that would provide live cut-ins to World Cup qualifiers as they take place around the globe.
Instead, FIFA and CONCACAF transport us back to the bad old days of the '80s and closed-circuit TV for big games. And if you're a soccer fan in the U.S., where FIFA claims to be trying to make the sport more popular, you're all the poorer for it.
One other note: If you aren't able to see U.S.-Honduras, I will be at the stadium in San Pedro Sula and providing updates on Twitter during the game.
World Cup bracketology
This week's World Cup qualifiers are the last non-playoff qualifiers on the schedule, so we'll know a lot more about which 32 teams will be at South Africa 2010 in less than a week. I went through the rest of the games on the schedule and came up with my prediction for the 32 teams that will make it.
What did my crystal ball tell me? That Argentina and Portugal (with the world's top two players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) will qualify after all. And that several heavyweights won't, including Sweden, Greece, Egypt, Nigeria, Turkey and the Czech Republic.
Here are the 11 teams that have already qualified: Australia, Brazil, England, Ghana, Japan, Netherlands, Paraguay, North Korea, South Africa (host), South Korea, Spain.
And here are my predictions for the other 21: Algeria, Argentina, Bahrain, Cameroon, Chile, Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, Honduras, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Tunisia, USA.
Close but no cigar: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand, Nigeria, Slovenia, Sweden, Togo, Turkey, Ukraine, Uruguay, Venezuela.
Fans aren't the only ones who are disappointed by the closed-circuit-only broadcast of U.S.-Honduras. So are the players. "It can be difficult when you have a lot of fans supporting U.S. Soccer and they don't get a chance to watch us play," forward Charlie Davies said. "You want to see the sport grow, so it definitely helps when you have games televised."
Clint Dempsey is out with a shoulder injury, which increases the chance that Stuart Holden will get the start on the right side of the U.S. midfield on Saturday. Holden is a rising star in MLS with the Houston Dynamo, but with a salary of just $34,728 he may be, as one reader put it, the best bargain in world soccer. Holden laughed when I asked him if that was the case.
"My publicist sent me a link with the top 500 paid MLS players," said Holden, who's in the last year of his MLS contract. "It's no secret I'm on low wages, and the end of this year is going to be big for me in terms of what's next in my career. I'm not 100 percent sure whether it's going to be MLS or whether I'll make that jump overseas, but as long as I keep putting myself in a position where I have those options, I'll make the right choice for the next step in my career."
One complication: If Holden moves to a European team, he'll need to get playing time if he wants to be on U.S. squad in South Africa.
"Now that I've become a part of this group and gotten some regular opportunities with the national team, it's important for me in my development to keep playing in order to push myself to be a part of that World Cup team," he said.
Check back for more coverage from Honduras in the coming days.