World Cup Tales: Colombia 1986 – The World Cup That Never Was
The upcoming World Cup will the first to take place in the entire continent of Africa but there are several countries that have already held the tournament more that once, such as Italy, France and Germany. The first team to earn the honour of hosting the World Cup finals twice, however, was Mexico and the story of how this came to pass is as much a story of the politics of FIFA as it is of the qualities of Mexico when it comes to hosting the finals of the tournament. The truth of the matter is that the hosts of the 1986 World Cup finals should have been Colombia.
Then, as now, the decision made over who to award the World Cup was made many years before the actual tournament took place. In the case of the 1986 tournament, the decision was taking during a tumultuous year for FIFA – 1974, the year that Joao Havelange replaced Stanley Rous as the president of FIFA. Havelange campaigned on the principle of an expanded role within the game for the Asian and African confederations and Rous, who had in 1963 campaigned for Apartheid South Africa to be allowed to play in the World Cup, was an easy picking for him. Havelange would go on to reward those that had supported him by expanding the tournament, it was too late for him to do anything about Colombia – for now.
The Colombian bid had been the brain-child of the country’s president, Misael Pastrana Borrero. Pastrana had come to power as the result of a later discredited election during the summer of 1970 as a political conservative, and his grand schemes for his country were not untypical for the era. He envisaged huge construction projects as being the key to Colombia’s prosperity, and the World Cup certainly sat as part of that. With Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and Mexico having already hosted the tournament and Argentina pencilled in for 1978, why shouldn’t it be Colombia in 1986? This would be his legacy to the country.
Except it wasn’t that simple. The M-19 guerilla group were just one of many inspired by Pastrana’s fraudulent election win of 1970 and Pastrana would be the last Conservative leader in Colombia. In the years after his departure, the country would slide further and further into debt, and the rise to power of drug cartels would provide a backdrop of kidnap and murder in the country that started to raise serious questions over whether the World Cup could be held safely in Colombia. In addition to this, the grandiose building plans of Pastrana had long since fallen by the wayside. The promised new stadia hadn’t been built and, it seemed increasingly likely, couldn’t be built. At the start of 1983 Colombia conceded that it wouldn’t be able to host the tournament and returned the rights to it.
This created what could have been regarded as a crisis for FIFA, but one man’s crisis is another man’s opportunity and for Joao Havelange, this was an opportunity. Initially, four nations – the United States of America, Brazil, Canada and Mexico – put themselves forward to host the tournament, but Brazil soon dropped out, leaving only the Americans, Canadians and Mexicans to battle it out. In an extraordinary “vote”, which wasn’t so much a vote as an instruction from FIFA’s executive committee on which way to vote, every single vote went to Mexico. But why should this be? It is possible to argue that Canada, a country that hadn’t in 1983 ever qualified for a World Cup finals presented a weak bid, but the USA? If any federation was likely to present a strong case, it would surely be the Americans.
Former President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had been the chair of the North American Soccer League’s Board of Governors since 1977, and the case that he put forward was a strong one. The NASL was past its peak by 1983, but hosting a World Cup would bring the world’s game to its most lucrative audience. Pele and Franz Beckenbauer spoke out in favour of the bid. The American sporting infrastructure could hand FIFA a massive tournament. Congress, however, refused to give governmental support for the American bid and almost quickly as it had been conceived, it was over when the tournament was handed to Mexico.
Even congressional support, however, would have been unlikely to be enough to win the bid for Kissinger. With the benefit of hindsight, there were two primary reasons why the 1986 World Cup was awarded to Mexico. Firstly, FIFA’s relationship with the United States Soccer Federation was at best described as fractious. In 1981, FIFA had threatened to outlaw the NASL and suspend the USSF (who had supported their league) over fundamental changes to the laws of the games that the NASL had introduced, such as a thirty-five yard offside line and using shoot-outs to decide drawn matches. The NASL never fully implemented the changes to the game that FIFA had demanded, but when the 1986 World Cup became suddenly became available again, FIFA found that revenge is a dish often best served cold.
The second reason was to do with the commercial affairs of FIFA. Guillermo Cañedo had been the president of Club America in Mexico City and was also the head of Televisa, the Mexican media conglomerate, which owned the club, as well as two other Mexican clubs, Necaxa and Atlante. He was also a FIFA vice-president, and he promised a World Cup that would provide a template for the way that the tournament is still run today. Official partners were brought in and ticket prices increased. Crowds for some group matches shrank as locals were priced out. It made some people very wealthy, and the appeal to FIFA was obvious. In addition to this, playing the tournament in Mexico appeased potential anger from the South American confederation, CONMEBOL. It played to a gallery that Havelange could use to cement his worldview upon the game.
So it was that Mexico held its second World Cup finals in sixteen years, and the hideous earthquake that struck Mexico City in September 1985 gave a moral angle to the tournament that it hadn’t previously held. Miraculously, the stadia all semmed to survive and Mexico 86 went ahead, with lunchtime kick-offs under a blazing sun for the benefit of European television audiences, from which Televisa profited massively. Two months after the Mexico City earthquake, a volcano caused a landslide that hit the Colombian region of Armero, killing 20,000 people – twice as many people as had been killed in the Mexico City earthquake. Six weeks later, the Supreme Palace of Justice in Bogota was seized by the M-19 guerilla group – eleven of the country’s Supreme Court Justices were amongst over one hundred people killed in the subsequent army raid.
It seems likely that Colombia will bid for the 2026 World Cup finals, by which time forty years will have passed since the tournament that never was. There is, however, a serious danger that the Colombians will be overlooked, because 2030 marks the centenary of the World Cup and it is expected that Argentina and Uruguay, who contested the 1930 final, will launch a joint bid for the 2030 finals. More significantly, it is widely understood that CONMEBOL is highly supportive of this bid and, whilst the CONCACAF rent-a-gob Jack Warner has already urged the Colombians to bid for 2026, it seems inconceivable that FIFA will allow two successive tournaments on the same continent or that CONMEBOL will not support an alternate bid with such an emotional pull. Considering, however, that the internal workings of FIFA remain a mystery to most that don’t pass regularly pass through the corridors of its Zurich headquarters, it would seem unwise to bet against Colombia getting another chance eventually.