As tomorrow’s kickoff in the opening match between South Africa and Mexico fast approaches, one has to be inspired by the great achievement the host nation has accomplished. They pulled off what many doubted they could, and have again given hope to developing countries of hosting international events of the scope and magnitude of the World Cup.
Tomorrow’s World Cup is the first one held in a developing nation in 24 years, the last one being Mexico in 1986. Mexico '86 was a resounding success both on and off the pitch, but for all the joy and happiness it brought Mexico, it also had a dreary back story.
You see, Mexico was not the original nation chosen to host the 13th World Cup. The original host was the South American nation of Colombia.
Here is the story of those sad circumstances behind Colombia’s decision to give up its place as host of the biggest sporting event in the world.
On October 25, 1982, Colombia, through a statement made by then Colombian president Belisario Betancourt, announced its withdrawal as host of the 1986 World Cup.
It is the only nation to ever do so.
It’s baffling that a country would give up such a prestigious and economically profitable event, as we have seen recently the competition to host one is a cutthroat endeavor, full of back-door deals and favors. Developing countries face an uphill battle not many are willing to endure.
Colombia’s foray into hosting started in 1970.
After witnessing the resounding success of the Mexico 1970 World Cup, Afonso Senior Quevedo, the founder of Colombian club Millonarios de Bogota, was inspired and began to devise a plan to bring the World Cup to Colombia.
Senior Quevedo’s proposal was well received by FIFA at its 1972 congress in Beirut, and especially received resounding support by the then-FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous. With all this steam behind the project, on June 9, 1974, FIFA ‘s Executive Committee chose Colombia as the host for the 1986 World Cup.
It was an exiting development. South America would be hosting two World Cups in less than eight years.
Colombia had 12 long years to plan and build towards hosting the most important sporting event in the world. Sadly, the next eight years would serve as a road map on how to fail at organizing such an event.
So, how did Colombia's efforts to organize the World Cup fail so miserably? It can be compared to a bad golf swing: There was no follow-through.
Starting with the government of Misael Pastrana, president of Colombia at the time when FIFA awarded the tournament, every government balked and procrastinated when it came to giving serious backing to projects related to the World Cup.
First off, most of the funding and plans to expand and build new stadiums never materialized or went beyond the planning stage.
At the time, Colombia had no stadium that could fit more than 40,000 people, and this was woefully inadequate for FIFA. Eventually, the only city in Colombia that got organized enough to build a stadium was Medellin, which finished a six-year project, the 60,000-seat Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez, in May of 1986—sadly it was too late for it to matter.
As Colombia’s government and World Cup organization seemed to stumble and falter, FIFA grew increasingly worried. To make matters worse, Sir Stanley Rous, Colombia’s biggest champion within the organization had been replaced as president of FIFA by Joao Havelange soon after Colombia was awarded the Cup in 1974.
Though Havelange was not openly opposed to Colombia as a host, the pragmatic Brazilian was less than willing to go out on a limb in support of Colombia like Rous would have.
As Colombia seemed to falter, FIFA began to consider other options. One of the options came from an unusual source, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, a big fan of football, reached out to FIFA about the possibility of the US hosting the 1986 World Cup instead of Colombia.
The fact that FIFA received him and considered his proposal pointed to a changing tide in the support and confidence within FIFA for the Colombians' project.
Since no serious project to improve roads, hotels, infrastructure, telecommunication facilities, airports, and other things FIFA saw as necessary were being started by the Colombian government, FIFA saw itself at an impasse and decided to take action.
In August 1982, after seeing its last two World Cups organized by countries that they deemed in a similar economic status as Colombia, FIFA sent the Colombian government a list of demands that had to be met if FIFA was going to allow Colombia to host the Cup.
This was the beginning of the end.
FIFA’s list of demands floored the Colombian government. They seemed almost impossible to meet in just four years, despite the fact that most of them were mostly what one would have expected out of a country hosting an event of that magnitude. The government already had eight years to have gotten started on them but never did.
An example of some of these demands are these: FIFA asked to have 12 venues with a capacity of at least 40,000 people to host first-round matches. Six of these 12 were to have capacity for at least 60,000 for the second round, and two of those six were to have capacity for at least 80,000 for the opening game and the final.
FIFA also demanded that the country’s highway and railroad system be able to handle the influx of tourists and be able to transport them safely from venue to venue.
FIFA also demanded a television tower and media center be built in Bogota to handle all the broadcasting needs, and finally, it asked for luxury accommodations and transportation for its executives for the months before and during the Cup.
President Belisario Betancourt was furious when he read these demands. He took them as a personal affront not only to Colombia, but to himself and his government.
On the night of October 25, 1982, he appeared on television and said “Because we preserve the public good, because we know that waste is unforgivable, I announce to my compatriots that the 1986 World Cup of Football will not be held in Colombia, and after a democratic public consultation, we know what our real needs are: The golden rule was not met, consisting in that the World Cup should benefit Colombia, not Colombia benefiting the football multinational (FIFA).
"We have things to do here, and we don’t have enough time to attend to FIFA and its partners' extravagances. (Gabriel) Garcia Marquez (who had just won the Nobel literature price) will compensate for whatever luster we loose with the World Cup.”
With these words, Colombia gave up its place as host of the World Cup.
FIFA was left to scramble and find a suitable host for the 1986 World Cup. Three serious contenders emerged, all in North America: Canada, Mexico, and the United States. After an accelerated series of proposals by these federations and inspections of the countries by FIFA, Mexico was awarded the World Cup in May 20, 1983.
The rest is football history.
On September 19, 1985, Mexico City was rocked by an earthquake that measured 8.1 on the Richter scale. It killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people. It was a catastrophic event for a country that was less than a year from hosting the World Cup.
FIFA again panicked, because it quickly saw another possible debacle involving this already unfortunate World Cup.
Mexico, however, rose to the occasion.
The government, and most importantly, the citizens of the country, saw it as a challenge to be met. To prove that Mexico could rise from its ashes like only a great nation can.
Mexico went on to host one of the most memorable World Cups, one that is not only fondly remembered for its football, but also for the enthusiasm and spirit of the country that hosted it. How they welcomed the world with open arms so shortly after tragedy has struck and shared their joy with them.
This is what most Colombians despair over.
Not because they are a nation beset by jealousy or bad will, but because they saw that even the biggest obstacles can be overcome if a government and its people work in unison for a single goal. Something their government was not willing to do, and something it had eight years to plan.
Sadly, the only result is the infamy of being the only nation ever to give up its right to host a World Cup.