Mihir Bose: Why world football should learn from the Americans

Those in Brazil who are now so angry about staging the 2014 World Cup should blame their fellow South Americans, the Colombians, for making it such a high profile political event.

It was the Colombians in 1973 who both invented modern football World Cup bidding and linked it to politics. Seeking the 1986 World Cup, they entertained a visiting FIFA delegation lavishly and at a reception the president of Columbia, Dr Borrero, made it clear that hosting the competition would prove Colombia had arrived as a nation. “It is in everyone’s mutual interest to demonstrate to the world that a country such as ours is perfectly competent to put this challenge to its sports administration, thus conveying all other nations just how capable it is of organizing an event of this magnitude in 1986.” The Colombians then made declarations that have been echoed by Brazilian politicians, indeed any politician seeking the World Cup: “If it is necessary to construct new stadia, we shall do so with the people’s backing in the knowledge of the Colombians’ love of football.”

Colombia in the end failed to meet its commitments and the 1986 World Cup was given to Mexico, beating the US and making Henry Kissinger say FIFA politics was more lethal than world politics. By the time the contest for the 1998 World Cup took place, bidding nations had begun to treat the FIFA president as if he was a head of state who had to be humoured. Switzerland was so keen to host the competition that the President of the Swiss Football Association nominated Joao Havelange for the Nobel Peace Prize. Havelange, in return, waxed eloquent about the Swiss bid. Morocco, another bidder, got Havelange to visit Rabat and be received by King Hassan II. France topped it when in a ceremony at the presidential palace François Mitterrand inducted Havelange into France’s Légion d’Honneur, describing him as “one of the great figures of today’s sporting world”. France duly won the right to host the 1998 World Cup.

In many ways the most revealing political wooing was that by Nelson Mandela to secure South Africa the 2010 World Cup. South Africa had used Mandela for their failed 2006 bid and, with only African nations allowed to bid for the 2010 competition, South Africa was determined to have it. The day before the vote on 2010, Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa, had secret talks in Zurich’s Grand Dolder Hotel with Jack Warner. A few weeks before, I had met Warner in London and he was scathing about the South Africans and very warm towards Morocco. Now he was so hostile to South Africa he was even refusing to return calls from the South African bid team. Everyone knew how crucial Warner was. He controlled three votes on the 24-man executive and could swing the election. South Africa had sent Bishop Desmond Tutu to Warner’s country, Trinidad, to hold a special mass to humour him. And with a day to go the trump card of Mandela was played.

What these men discussed has never been revealed. But when I caught up with Warner in the corridor immediately after and asked who was going to win, Morocco or South Africa, he said: “Who knows, anything can happen.” Then he gave a big smile, and the next day South Africa, to Morocco’s fury, won.

That afternoon, as the South Africans held a celebratory lunch at the Grand Dolder, Mandela duly raised a glass to his new friends. For Mandela, the man who is nearest to a modern-day Gandhi, to be forced to ‘schmooze’ Warner shows that, when your country wants the World Cup, you have to take any road you can.

And let us remind ourselves that David Cameron, when England was bidding for the 2018 World Cup, treated Sepp Blatter as if he was a head of a state. At a reception for him at Downing Street this is what Cameron said:

“One of the first things I did when I became prime minister was to call you to reconfirm the new government’s full support for England 2018 and since then we have been involved on a daily basis strengthening it wherever possible. The government may have changed, but our commitment to hosting the World Cup has not changed. Mr President, you have done a huge amount for football during your whole life. The decisions you have made have been instrumental in taking the game to new heights, breaking boundaries and reaching new people, culminating in what we were just discussing together – bringing that hugely successful World Cup to Africa just a few months ago. It was an inspirational thing to see. It will have had a transformational effect, not just in South Africa but right across that continent, country after country. In 50 days’ time, you and the FIFA executive will make another crucial decision, deciding who hosts the 2018 World Cup. I hope you see that England has got what it takes to host the greatest tournament on earth. I hope you can see how much our country wants this.”

The tune changed dramatically after England lost.

President Lula of Brazil hobnobbed with IOC members before the vote on the 2016 Olympics and shed copious tears as Rio was chosen to become the first South American city to host the Games. Lula’s tears showed hosting the Olympics meant Brazil had arrived at the top table of world powers.

In 1920 Winston Churchill would not give government money to the British Olympic team, instead asked businessmen to help. Churchill’s successors were happy to spend £9.3 billion to host the 2012 Olympics as this was seen as important for Britain’s prestige and standing in the world.

The trick here is to pretend you are travelling on a high road talking of how well-equipped you are to hold the World Cup and all the good it will do for the country. But the real journey is along the low road, making deals to get the Olympics or the World Cup, however dubious they may be.

And what makes this worse is that the public are not told that all World Cups and modern Olympics are tightly controlled McDonald’s-style franchises with the host country having to adhere to very tight rules. So the Olympics specify how high the athletes’ living quarters can be. FIFA has gone even further. For the World Cup in South Africa FIFA even got the South African government to change its laws so that football-related offences were brought to court within weeks of the alleged offence being committed. This in a country where it can take years for a normal case to come to court. FIFA got generous tax concessions from the government – it demands this of all host countries – and so extensive were the powers given to FIFA that some South Africans felt the World Cup meant their country had been occupied by a country called FIFA.

Commercial enterprises promising to bring jobs are known to extract similar concessions but they do not pretend that their purpose is anything other than to make money. However those organising modern sports events as businesses, behave like a car manufacturer seeking a new factory, but shy away from using the sort of language that the car manufacturer would have no problems with.

One avenue for reform could be if the sports institutions of the old world learnt from the new world. The world’s only superpower may not play most of the sports other countries do but it can claim to have the most focused and successful sports administrations. American sports administration has one crucial advantage over almost everywhere else in the world. At the highest level, all of its major spectator sports – baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey – are run by commercial organisations. They exist to maximize the franchise owners’ income. They are uncluttered by wider responsibilities, such as international competition, grassroots development, or the role of their particular sport in American or world society. In short, they have no political or social agenda.

They meet no demands from government, and they demand nothing from government, except, crucially, the right to continue to operate as an anti-competitive cartel in a nation with a long and fierce history of anti-trust legislation. America’s major sports have secured several important legal exemptions from the laws of the land and, in return, the American central government has no responsibility for sport of any kind. So much so that when America hosts the Olympics, it is a private affair. Unlike the rest of the world, the US government does not get involved in funding Olympic Games, neither at the presidential nor the state level do the Americans have a sports policy. In contrast, in Europe, politicians like dabbling in sport but often do not seem to know how to handle it. The result is that, in Europe, sport comes under a variety of departments from culture, education, youth, health, social solidarity, agriculture, the family and in Greece, religion.

The Americans do recognise sport as special and, at the highest level, they practise a form of sporting socialism that would be unthinkable in Europe. So, in the NFL, all income is shared equally and the famous draft system means that the team that has come bottom of the league gets the pick of the best of next year’s college players. Even allowing for the special nature of American sport, with no promotion and relegation and the unique college system for breeding players, Europe just could not attempt such socialism.

This American sporting socialism is combined with an open acceptance that modern sport is big business. Not for American sport is talk of family and sport for all. When the NFL comes to London for what is now its regular match, the NFL Commissioner happily talks of the new markets the sport is seeking. It is acknowledged to be a commercial exercise. If it were FIFA or even the IOC, any such venture would come with talk of family values and the greater good, as if money and the search for new markets were not driving it.

However there is no chance of FIFA or the IOC accepting the American model. The result is, as we roll on to 2014, we shall hear more talk of the FIFA family and all this will do is increase public scepticism and anger in Brazil.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. Now a freelance journalist his latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99

Follow Mihir on Twitter @ mihirbose