Wednesday, 23 May 2018

World Cup: The demise of Colombia 86

It’s strange to think that if all had gone to plan, that there would never have been a Mexico 86. No shadow on the pitch of the Azteca Stadium, no Mexican Wave, no Pique. All these sights, sounds, and memories of my first World Cup would simply not have existed if the original host country had not been forced to step aside. It should have been Colombia 86.

To trace the roots of Colombia 86 and the cancellation of the FIFA World Cup tournament in this country, we have to rewind the VHS tape back to 1970. Misael Pastrana Borrero was elected as Colombia’s President – although allegations were made that the election was fixed – with the new leader swept to power, promising exciting rebuilding projects across the nation.

One of Borrero’s big dreams was to host the World Cup, and in 1974 Sir Stanley Rous, in one of his final acts as FIFA President, announced that the 1986 tournament had been awarded to the South American nation. But in both mainstream and FIFA political circles, the seeds of Colombia’s eventual demise had already been sown.

Borrero’s tenure only lasted four years, as Colombia spent the rest of the decade in political and financial strife. A number of guerrilla groups formed after the alleged rigging of the 1970 election, and this combined with the emergence of drug cartels within Colombia saw the stability of the country threatened.

As the new decade commenced, serious questions were being asked about Colombia’s suitability and capability regarding the World Cup, with the national debt mounting. The final nail in the coffin was probably hammered in during the summer of 1980; but the foundations for this decision had been set six years before.

Rous, who had been FIFA President since 1961, was ousted from his position by the determined Brazilian João Havelange in 1974, and the FIFA landscape changed forever. Havelange, with Pele often by his side, had carried out a thorough and professional campaign, appealing to African and Asian nations that the power of Europe simply had to be reduced within the sport.

Havelange held the strongest bargaining chip available during his negotiations. Proposing to expand the World Cup from a 16-team to 24-team event, the Brazilian appealed to the needs of many nations who felt that the top table of world football was inaccessible. And for many countries, such as England, the safety net of more qualification places seemed attractive.

He didn’t manage to secure the two-thirds majority on the first round of voting, but when Havelange defeated Rous 68-52 during the next stage, his hard work had been rewarded. Forming a template for all that followed in FIFA, Havelange’s campaign was smooth, and his election as President played a significant part in the subsequent transformation of FIFA into the huge profit making organisation we know today.

Havelange was good to his word, though. When in June 1980 it was announced that the 1982 World Cup would expand to involve 24 teams, there was a mixed response, some feeling that the tournament would now be bloated and others enthusiastic towards the expansion of the world game. But Havelange’s delivered promise was bad news for Colombia.

The increase in the number of countries competing proved too much. FIFA now wanted the 1986 World Cup played at 12 different stadiums, and a vast improvement in the rail system, airports, roads, media facilities and hotels of Colombia. With the country financially on its knees, Colombian President Belisario Betancur was forced to admit defeat in October 1982.

“I announce to my compatriots that the 1986 World Football championship will not be held in Colombia,” Betancur informed the Colombian public on national television. “We have a lot of things to do here, and there is not enough time to attend to the extravagances of FIFA and its members.” However, there were other countries willing to take the baton from Colombia.

In May 1983, representatives from Mexico, Canada and America visited a FIFA Committee in Stockholm to submit bids to host the 1986 World Cup. But it was a badly kept secret that Havelange had already persuaded the 20-man committee to rubber stamp the decision in favour of Mexico. Not for the first or last time, the integrity of FIFA was questioned.

It was common knowledge that Havelange had been flown to Mexico City in 1982 on a private plane owned by Televisa, Mexico’s national television broadcaster, and that the company owner Emilio Azcarraga was a business partner of Guillermo Cañedo, one of FIFA’s eight FIFA vice-presidents. It was hard not to arrive at the conclusion that the decision to choose Mexico had taken place during this period.

The American delegation went to Stockholm armed with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but little good it did them. Both America and Canada presented 90-page documents and spoke for the full half hour in front of the FIFA Committee; Mexico turned up with a twelve-page brochure and spoke for just roughly eight minutes. The whole thing was a waste of time.

It emerged that Havelange had handed a special commission report to the committee members backing the selection of Mexico, whilst being critical of the Canadian and American proposals. Asking the committee if they had any objections, when no one spoke up Havelange effectively awarded the World Cup to Mexico before the three countries involved had even made their presentations.

There was no official vote by the FIFA Committee, just an announcement from Havelange that the decision to award Mexico the 1986 World Cup was unanimous. “It is absurd that they can take decisions of this magnitude behind closed doors, without making an equal assessment of all the bids,” Kissinger complained. “They have got away with it too long.”

The biggest gripe of the American party was that no FIFA representatives had visited their country to examine the facilities available. But Havelange simply brushed away the complaints, citing a lack of support of football in America as the real reason behind their failure. “What’s the use of large budgets if the games are going to be held in empty stadiums,” Havelange responded. “A World Cup should be played before full stadiums.”

There was speculation that the US Soccer Federation would appeal the FIFA procedures, but this never materialised. It was little wonder that Kissinger would later describe FIFA politics to be dirtier than the real thing, and he was also reported to have said that, “The politics of FIFA, they make me nostalgic for the Middle East.”

Ultimately, the power of Havelange within FIFA was the driving force behind Mexico’s second World Cup in 16 years. Vast profits followed for FIFA and Televisa, the television company selling rights across the world, with the tournament declared as the most financially successful in the history of the event.

Allegations of corruption, and FIFA raking in large profits; maybe the past isn’t such a foreign country after all. Mexico landing the 1986 World Cup should have been warning for the future; the model had now been established for the governance of world football and the organisation of the greatest show on earth.

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