Scandal and disaster; how Mexico came to host the 1986 World Cup

Words by Matthew Crist Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 12, 2018
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The 1986 World Cup was one of the most memorable in history. But the fact that the competition even took place in Mexico was made all the more extraordinary, not just because of a devastating earthquake which hit the county just nine months before the tournament kicked-off, but because it was Colombia which had originally been chosen to host the competition.

That dynamic Denmark side, the sensational attacking prowess of the Soviets, the Gallic finesse of France and, of course, the magnificence of Maradona and his infamous Hand of God; Mexico ’86 was full of fascinating stories yet the most intriguing tale of that tournament was how the competition came to be held there in the first place.

Initially this feast of football had been due to take place in Colombia, a nation riddled with corruption and financial frailty in a decision which was questionable in its own right and by 1982, just four years before the opening game it was revealed, perhaps not surprisingly, that the country was in no position to underwrite the huge costs of hosting the event.

In a television address that November, Colombian president Belisario Betancur revealed that his nation lacked the economic capacity to meet the requirements for the tournament.

“I announce to my compatriots that the 1986 World Football championship will not be held in Colombia,” he proclaimed. ”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.”

Colombia’s subsequent decision to sacrifice the greatest show on earth resulted in something of a clamour to fill the void with Canada, Mexico and the USA, which had gone out of its way to promote soccer over the previous decade in the form of the North American Soccer League (NASL), all vying to become the new hosts.

The NASL was the brainchild of Steve Ross and his Warner Communications empire, but was struggling as the 1980s dawned with Ross seeing a last ditch bid to capture the world’s biggest football tournament as the perfect chance to save his investment – and he had the full support of high profile names like former Secretary of State and chief negotiator between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Henry Kissinger.

With the infrastructure already in place, not to mention the money for further investment, America appeared to offer the most viable alternative, especially seeing as Mexico was struggling with its own financial problems as unemployment figures reached record levels. Then there was the heat and altitude which had caused so many problems in the 1970 World Cup.

However, at a meeting in Stockholm on May 20,1983, FIFA revealed it was Mexico who would step into the breach and become the new hosts; becoming the first nation ever to stage the competition twice in the process. They may have organized a successful tournament a decade or so earlier and been able to boast stadia, facilities, and hotels which had all been tried and tested, but for many that reason simply didn’t wash.

The decision led to accusations of foul play, with claims that Mexico’s bid was based more on relations between then FIFA Chairman Joao Havelange and Mexican television mogul Emilio Azcarraga, owner of media giant Televisa and loyal supporter of Havelange, whose company would be hugely influential in broadcasting that summer’s competition.

Rumours of dodgy deals were rife, not least because Guillermo Canedo, one of the company’s founders, was also FIFA’s vice president at the time and had established the Organización de la Televisión Iberoamericana (OTI), a Latin American and Iberian TV Channel which had control over World Cup broadcasts throughout South America.

Following Colombia’s withdrawal, Havelange apparently flew straight to Mexico where he would meet Canedo and Emilio Azcarraga, while in the months that followed FIFA delegates were personally escorted around the country’s facilities by Canedo himself ahead of the final deliberations in Sweden.

And despite FIFA rules requiring an inspection of all potential host countries the delegation instead headed straight back to Europe prior to the final announcement, bypassing both the US and Canada in the process with Havelange announcing: “There is no time for a further postponement of our decision.”

...the American delegation, which featured the likes of ex-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, former New York Cosmos Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, didn’t see the funny side with Henry Kissinger claiming: “The politics of soccer make me nostalgic for the politics of the Middle East.”

In Stockholm, FIFA’s 21-member executive committee made its unanimous decision after hearing last-minute statements from the three contenders. Canada took 30 minutes to present their case and the American contingent were afforded an hour, whereas Mexican federation president Rafael del Castillo took just eight minutes to sway the panel.

Del Castillo later claimed: “Actually, I needed only one minute to convince them.” Not surprisingly the American delegation, which featured the likes of ex-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, former New York Cosmos Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, didn’t see the funny side with Henry Kissinger claiming: “The politics of soccer make me nostalgic for the politics of the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, Georges Schwartz, chairman of the Canadian World Cup Bid Committee held up the 90-page document submitted to FIFA by the Canadians and compared it with the flimsy 10-page version offered by Mexico. “This document is just a joke,” he said.

For the USA the result was a bitter blow and they would have to wait another eight years to host the biggest event in sport; but for now it was Mexico who had secured the rights to bring the thirteenth staging of the tournament to the world, only for another major hurdle to be put in their way which no amount of flesh pressing could overcome.

On September 19, 1985, a huge earthquake hit the nation’s capital and in a matter of seconds brought death and devastation on a scale seldom seen before, claiming over 7,000 lives and destroying 100,000 homes while causing $4 billion worth of damage; meaning once again Mexico would have to overcome the odds if they were to eventually welcome the world in 1986.

Despite the carnage none of the 12 World Cup stadiums, including three in Mexico City, had been damaged, and the newly built $20-million press facility, which had been constructed by Azcarraga’s Televisa corporation and was a key player in the questionable negotiations to host the tournament, also escaped any serious harm; this time the question as to whether the tournament would be played in Mexico was more an ethical one.

Whereas there were those who, prior to the September earthquakes, said Mexico should never have been awarded the 1986 World Cup, following the tragedy many now believed that holding the world championship was vital for the country’s recovery as well as the morale of its beleaguered population just as Chile had in 1962 – the show must go on.

After finally kicking-off on May 31 in the gigantic Azteca Stadium, the World Cup of 1986 would become one of the most exciting and colourful in living memory despite the controversy that had gone before, even though the opening game between Italy and Bulgaria was blighted, ironically, by poor international television signals.

Quite rightly Mexico ’86 will always be remembered for the antics of Diego Maradona, both good and bad, who cemented his place as the greatest player on the planet thanks to a number of blistering performances as he almost single handedly led Argentina to the pinnacle of world football.

But the efforts of lesser fancied sides such as the Soviet Union, Belgium and France, not to mention debutants like Canada, Denmark and Iraq as well as the appearance of home nations Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, who would eventually progress to the quarter-finals, ensured the tournament would be talked about more for football rather than the somewhat dubious circumstances in which the tournament was conceived.

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