The head of soccer’s world governing body FIFA is never likely to be called a shrinking violet. In the world of sport, perhaps only the head of the International Olympic Committee has a more powerful voice. When he talks, everyone listens.

So when back in the early 1990s Joao Havelange said that Japan was the ideal place to hold the 2002 World Cup, it could have only one meaning: FIFA would stage the 2002 event in Japan.

Havelange and his general secretary Sepp Blatter started to gently turn Japan’s idea of hosting the World Cup into a reality. No matter that the decision was to be decided by FIFA’s executive committee, no matter that Mexico was also keen to grab the 2002 World Cup, no matter that Japan didn’t even have a professional league.

Havelange was sure all these hurdles could be overcome and he would have his way.

But he wouldn’t.

On May 31, 1996, Havelange, as head of FIFA, was forced to announce the long-awaited decision as to who would get the World Cup in 2002.

The decision of the executive committee, he told the world, was that the 2002 World Cup would be cohosted by Japan and South Korea.

It was a stunning bolt from the blue for the world of football.

Only 10 days previously, Sepp Blatter, who subsequently succeeded Havelange as the president of FIFA, had written to me in response to a pair of articles I had written in The Japan Times in which I called on FIFA to allow the two countries to share the World Cup. Blatter told me that cohosting could not happen because “it was not permissible under FIFA regulations.”

And yet here was Blatter, 10 days later, implying that it was he who had persuaded the president to accept the fact of cohosting.

“What I said when I was general secretary was that it is a difficult task (to cohost) and it is not according to our statutes,” Blatter explained later. “There is still one World Cup but the expenses are doubled and the income must be shared. It’s not easy.

“But now I am in charge and it is during my four-year term as president that this World Cup is being played, and I will back this World Cup 100 percent. It was not my decision to have cohosting, but I said I have to accept it.”

In truth, Blatter had wanted the World Cup to go to Japan as much as Havelange. Quite why FIFA’s two top men were so enthusiastic about the Japanese bid remains something of a mystery, although the financial power of the Japanese was an obvious attraction. But they were thwarted by their enemies within FIFA, and the two countries’ hugely expensive bid campaigns proved ultimately to be futile.

What the machinations of FIFA politics had done was to throw two nations that despised each other into the arena together, but this time on the same side. Now, they had to work together to successfully stage the biggest single sporting event in the world.

FIFA maneuvers

The reason why the two countries found themselves awarded half a World Cup each has much more to do with political maneuvering within FIFA than the cause of soccer.

Havelange, like his Olympic counterpart Juan Antonio Samaranch, saw money in sport — huge money. While both uttered specious comments on the purity of sport, both realized that money was taking over sport and that sport had the potential to enrich itself on the backs of big business.

In theory, sport itself would be the beneficiary, but as the value of contracts, TV rights and sponsorships rose, it was clear that a lot of people were making money — both legally and illegally, as the Salt Lake City Olympic scandal showed — through their association with sport.

But not everyone’s making money. Last year, ISL/ISMM, the group that held the marketing and TV rights for both the World Cup and the Olympics, collapsed, forcing FIFA to take over the marketing rights to the World Cup with just a year to go.

With the price of being a primary World Cup sponsor rising to around $40 million, it’s not an easy job finding enough companies willing to shell out such huge sums of money and the collapse of ISL is expected to cost FIFA at least $30 million, with some figures ranging up to $300.

ISL found out to its cost that there was a limit as to how far certain markets could go. When ISL/ISMM paid $2 billion for the TV rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, the feeling was that this had to be the limit. Major soccer playing countries such as Great Britain balked at paying enormous sums to show the 2002 World Cup. But while ISL did not lose money on its FIFA-related contracts, it overreached itself in men’s tennis and auto racing and found that it could not recoup the money it had paid for the rights to these events.

While ISL may have pushed the envelope with the price it charged clients to have a piece of the World Cup, soccer has experienced a massive boom in the last decade and there are still companies willing to pay out huge sums to be associated with premier events like the World Cup.

Havelange, from soccer-mad Brazil, was well aware of this and he turned toward the world’s biggest business markets — the United States and Japan — to raise the level of soccer’s market price, which, it was felt, had been seriously undervalued in the past.

The United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup despite having no discernible soccer league and with lingering memories of the failed North American Soccer League in the ’70s. While soccer has a reasonably strong following among schoolboys in the U.S., it cannot compete with baseball, American football and basketball for the lucrative TV rights that drive North American sports and drive up the salaries of their athletes.

Before it was awarded the World Cup in 1988, the United States hadn’t qualified for the World Cup finals since 1950. It didn’t have a league and there was almost no enthusiasm for the game even among sports fans.

What it did have was 260 million people — some of whom (mainly Hispanic immigrants) were starved for soccer — who by and large spoke English, countless huge stadiums that could seat up to 105,000 fans, experience in hosting huge events, an excellent transportation network and, last but not least, the biggest economy in the world.

If soccer could be sold in the United States, it could be sold anywhere. And, of course, it would generate millions of dollars for FIFA.

Japan, too, was a weak soccer playing nation. Before the 1990s, its main claim to fame was winning the bronze medal at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. It did have a strong amateur league, consisting of company teams, it also had a large population (125 million, none of whom spoke English), and it had the second-biggest economy in the world. In fact, by the end of the ’80s, it appeared as though Japan owned most of the world and produced everything in it.

The dollar and yen signs could almost be seen flashing across Havelange’s eyes — sell soccer in these countries, and soccer would be forever rich.

No matter that Japan didn’t have a professional league, no matter that it had never qualified for the World Cup finals, no matter that Japan was a million miles away from the established soccer centers of Europe and South America — these Japanese had money and their money was good enough for Havelange.

Mexico, it seemed, just didn’t have a chance. Besides, it had held the World Cup in 1970 and again in 1986, when Colombia was forced to pull out due to economic difficulties. Soccer did not want a repeat of 1986. “Bankrupt countries need not apply,” seemed to be the message. The United States and Japan presented no such problems.

Japan’s credentials were handed a major boost in the early ’90s when its soccer team won the Asian Cup for the first time (in 1992) and started its star-studded professional football league — the J. League — in 1993.

Suddenly, soccer was booming in Japan. Tickets were like gold dust, crowds of over 50,000 filled Tokyo’s National Stadium and other venues to watch the likes of Kazu Miura, Pierre Littbarski, Zico and Gary Lineker. When Kazu took a corner, a thousand cameras flashed through the stadium creating an icon out of Japan’s star player.

Soccer was fashionable and it was suddenly big in Japan.

It seemed as if nothing could stop Japan earning the rights to the 2002 World Cup.

Except South Korea.

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