By Charles Boehm
The Dallas Cup has grown into one of the premier youth soccer tournaments in the world since its founding 33 years ago. Of course, such longevity, impressive as it is, hardly holds a candle to Sir Gordon Jago, the 79-year-old legend who has overseen the tournament for the past nine years, capping a sterling career as a player, coach and executive in both Great Britain and the United States that was recognized with the honor of knighthood at an audience with Queen Elizabeth II six years ago.
The Soccer Wire: You were talking about the Dallas Cup’s international and domestic selection process. Do you notice trends or developments in this area?
Gordon Jago: The most important thing is, the standard of play in the American teams is going up all the time. You see it every year. It’s interesting – last year, the Under-13, 14 and 15 [had] all American teams in the finals. In the Under-16, 17 and 19, they were all overseas. So there’s that gap at the moment that we’ve got to look at. Where are we not quite right? When we’ve reached the age of 16, where do we go? We can hold our own in the younger age-level competition, but once we start getting over 16, we’re not quite as good, for some reason, as the international teams that come in.
Whether it’s because a lot of those teams are associated with professional clubs around the world, we’re not certain. They’re competing, but they’re not quite good enough there. We did have the Dallas Texans win the Super Group about four years ago – it may have been 2006 – and that was exceptional, because there were good teams in there, [like] Manchester United. The Texans had a magnificent team and went on to success there.
In terms of the American teams, we try to get as many of the states as possible represented. We want to help develop soccer in [new] areas…So we try to get a broad selection from across the United States. Last year we took an Under-13 team from Alaska, and that was the very first time we’ve ever had a team from Alaska. We wanted to show all the other teams from Alaska: work hard and you can come to Dallas for the Dallas Cup. Otherwise, to be truthful, you would just go to the hotbeds: southern Cal, Chicago, north Texas, and take the strongest teams out of those states and you could fill it up with quality American teams. But we try to go right across the boards.
Now with foreign teams, we’re looking for teams like Eintracht Frankfurt, if they come in the Super Group, they’ll try to bring an Under-16 team. The Mexican professional teams come in with everybody: five teams right across the board. The Tigres of this world, they want one team in every age bracket.
It’s very difficult to select and we’re going to have two qualifying tournaments here in Dallas at the end of the year, one organized by the Dallas Texans, the other by FC Dallas…That’ll be interesting, because we often get local teams who say, ‘Hey, we’re better than that team you brought in.’ So they’re going to have an opportunity now.
We took the Indian [Under-16] National Team, so that’s going to be interesting, to see how they get on. Puerto Rico is sending an Under-19 National Team. We’re bringing them in for the first time and hopefully they’ll be able to compete. We are not aware of everything – and sometimes, we’ve had people like AC Milan, River Plate and Aston Villa who brought young teams and didn’t bring their strong team, and consequently didn’t even get out of bracket. They learned their lesson very quickly, because we tried to tell them – you’d better bring a strong team, because the standard of those games is very, very high.
TSW: Those clubs must’ve had their egos bruised a bit.
GJ: Oh yes…I joined nine years ago and after a couple of years I had to go to London to meet with the Premier League, because the teams that were coming over were not bringing a strong team, they were bringing perhaps a younger team for development. Well, that’s fine for them, but it’s not fine for us. Particularly when we’re picking up the tab. It can be very expensive to bring a team in…So if they are going to come, bring a respectable team, and we’ll have a great team. If they don’t bring a strong team for whatever reason, don’t come, because you’re not fair to us and you’re not fair to yourselves.
The teams from Brazil – now they DO come to win. If we get Sao Paulo or a Coritiba, they come with one object: to win. Because they also want those players to be seen by the many scouts that are here, in the hope that they may be able to sell one of them…We have over 200 college coaches coming for scouting, and many clubs.
TSW: Making this tournament happen seems like a massive undertaking.
GJ: We only have four people on the staff, but we have a very good board of directors, and many, many volunteers. We have 32 [volunteer] committees and those committee chairs, they’re the key people. One of them, for example, takes care of all international flags and national anthems. So when I give him a list of teams from overseas, he goes through his stock of flags and anthems.
We have very good sponsorship…Dr Pepper, Nike, American Airlines, Frito-Lay, Lowes, we have a lot of good sponsors. We book 8,000 room nights, so there’s some hotel rebate money. Team fees, we keep those reasonable. Attendance, we only charge at the stadium for the finals and the Super Group games. It’s tight, and at the end of the tournament, money’s pretty low at that time. But only four people on staff, and we’re all basically semi-retired. We make it.
I’ll step away from being the executive director at the end of this tournament, and that’s going to be one of my prime efforts – they’ve asked me to bring in international teams and I’m going after one or two big, worldwide companies to try and get more sponsorship to help.
We also get help from elsewhere. For example, [in a previous year] we brought a team in from Israel, a peace team: nine Israelis and nine Palestinians. We did that through [Israeli] Prime Minister Shimon Peres, because he believes, quite rightly, that the way to bring the two nations together is through education and sport. So they have opened up these schools to bring in young boys and girls from both nations. We got wind of this and contacted them to make the arrangements, and I had a Lebanese gentleman in Houston and a Jewish gentlemen in Dallas put up the money to bring the team in.
We had an oil company [executive] here in Dallas who was doing business in Iraq and we brought the Iraqi national boys team in, and he picked up the tab on that one. In fact, he was a friend of George Bush and he took the boys to the White House after the tournament finished. So you see, we beg, steal and borrow!
TSW: You’ve been involved in American soccer for a long, long time. Could you share your perspective on the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team’s recent failure to qualify for the Summer Olympics?
GJ: We were very disappointed, of course, because we want the United States to succeed. That’s the object, the exercise here. What we’re trying to do is present our younger players the opportunity to come up against top-class international teams at early ages, from 13 up, and learn from them.
I watched the whole game [the U.S.’ final CONCACAF Olympic qualifier against El Salvador] and was disappointed in the manner in which we [failed to qualify], because really, the game was won. It’s easy to criticize from the sideline, but with the talent that we have in this country, we really should not have gone out. I think we had enough talent here to qualify. I find it difficult to accept that we didn’t have enough on the field to take care of other countries in the competition.
I’d say some federations are probably going to send their under-20 team here next in preparation for the FIFA championships, because they can come in here and get very, very good games. [The U.S.] did it a few years ago and the team wasn’t very strong and coach [Thomas] Rongen, right after the tournament here he went out and got [U.S.] players from all over the world…It showed up that they weren’t good enough here, so they certainly wouldn’t be good enough for the FIFA world championships.
But that’s what we offer – we offer an opportunity for the United States to send the cream of the crop at every age level in to us, to play and to see what they can do against an Under-16 team from Germany or Brazil. That’s very, very important to me.