New Jersey’s soccer-mad governor Phil Murphy opens up about the 2018 World Cup, the future of soccer in the U.S., and how the beautiful game can bridge the broad divides in American politics.

Governor Phil Murphy places his first two bets at Monmouth Park during the first day of sports betting in New Jersey on Thursday, June 14, 2018. Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office.

Governor Phil Murphy places his first two bets at Monmouth Park during the first day of sports betting in New Jersey on Thursday, June 14, 2018. Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office.

Last week, New Jersey completed a decades-long quest to legalize sports betting, and the state’s Democratic Governor Phil Murphy was eager to take full advantage. A lifelong soccer fan, Murphy made the first ever legal bet in the state’s history, a $20 wager that Germany will win the 2018 World Cup.

“I’m not happy with the way things have started here,” Murphy joked to Eight by Eight in the aftermath of Die Mannschaft’s uninspiring loss to Mexico last weekend. Though he’d prefer to be supporting the U.S. men’s national team this summer — a failure that remains “stunning and staggering” — Germany is a natural backup selection. From 2009 to 2013, he served there as the U.S. ambassador and offered a nuanced take on why Jogi Löw’s team struggled in their opening match.

“They were disorganized. When their outside backs made runs, particularly [Joshua] Kimmich, they had no rotation to get back on defense. They lost the midfield time and again. I was very discouraged,” he said.

Regardless of whether or not Germany rebounds this summer, Murphy will still be more than just a fan of the game. Over the years, he’s become an integral part of American soccer’s fabric. He’s served on U.S. Soccer’s Board of Governors and calls former men’s national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann a “close friend.” He’s known the new U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro for over 30 years, dating back to time spent together working at Goldman Sachs. He’s also the majority owner of Sky Blue FC, the women’s professional team in the New York-New Jersey area.

How did a 60 year-old American businessman-turned-politician become so deeply involved in the game? Like many fans, his passion started early. Born and raised outside of Boston, he recalled listening to matches on the radio with neighbors from Glasgow in the dark days before the sport was widely available on television. Never much of a player, his initial interest in the sport exploded during two stints living abroad in Germany, first as an executive with Goldman Sachs and later when he served as ambassador.

As the father to four children, he’s watched them all play in America’s myriad youth leagues, and his oldest son just transferred to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut to join their varsity squad. Between driving his kids to soccer matches on Saturday mornings, networking with U.S. Soccer’s bigwigs, and running a professional club, Murphy has developed a unique viewpoint on the sport’s future.

On the men’s side, he contends that Major League Soccer has built a financially successful business model, but the youth system has not yet managed to consistently develop elite international level talent – Christian Pulisic withstanding. “You’ve got to solve the riddle of school participation, and I’m not sure how we do it,” he said. “Jürgen [Klinsmann] felt strongly that kids should play club only, and when in doubt go to Europe and play. I don’t know that that will happen in the United States. School sports is still a big deal.”

For the women, the problem is inverted. Youth leagues and college soccer develop world class players, but as an owner of Sky Blue FC, he’s felt the financial struggles of the women’s professional soccer personally. Last year, Murphy lost $523,000 running the club, according to his tax returns. “It’s not nearly as successful financially as it should be, but the on-field product is as good as any in the world,” he said.

One popular idea to push the soccer forward in the United States is massive investment in the game’s infrastructure. After a downtown at the turn of the century, Germany overhauled its national team program, spending over $1 billion to build a network of 366 regional training centers and revamp its youth development system. That investment paid off in 2014 with the nation’s fourth World Cup title. On a smaller scale, Iceland (pop. 334,000) invested heavily in coaching education and field construction, leading to that country’s footballing renaissance and qualification for both the 2016 Euros and 2018 World Cup.

From his perch as governor, Murphy doesn’t see a direct role for state or federal money in growing America’s soccer infrastructure. “Government can play a role, but I don’t think it needs to be the bankroller,” he said. “There’s plenty of money in the [U.S. Soccer] Federation and in the professional clubs.”

He cites helping secure the 2026 World Cup bid as a way government can help support the growth of the game. Murphy personally hosted FIFA’s technical committee on its tour of the United States, and even credited President Trump for providing three letters to FIFA that guaranteed visitors from around the world would be welcome in the United States during the tournament. In eight years, that effort will bring a financial windfall into American soccer, and some of that money will then trickle down to fund youth programs to develop the next generation of American talent.

But Murphy did have tough words for the president on the separation of migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. “This whole policy right now of separating kids, putting them into Wal-Marts at the borders and sending mom and dad back home is just disgusting and completely un-American,” he said.

Trump bowed to pressure yesterday and reversed course on his administration’s disastrous policy, but Murphy acknowledges that the United States must still repair the damage that has been done. “Do we have to mend fences in a longer sense? You betcha,” he said.

Like all true believers in the beautiful game, Murphy sees soccer as a way to bridge that divide. He cites the youth movement currently surging through the U.S. men’s national team as an example. In a June friendly against France before the World Cup, 12 of the 15 American players who touched the pitch were players of color. For Murphy, this team could become a proud symbol of the country’s diverse, multicultural future, showing how far the game has come from its early days as a bastion of upper-middle class, white players.

“People would talk always when I was in Germany as an ambassador and to some extent here about soccer diplomacy,” he said. “All you need is a ball, everybody can play it. It’s a universal sport. All comers. Free admission, and that’s its beauty. And we are a nation – as much as any in the world – that has the absolute ability to capture that, and I think we will.”

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