(WFI) INSIDER understands that Paraguay has emerged as an unlikely battleground in the race to host the 2022 World Cup finals.
The landlocked South American country is one of the great overachievers in international football, with nine World Cup finals appearances – including all of the last four tournaments – despite boasting a population of just 6 million people.
But it is for its influence off the pitch that the country is being courted. The CONMEBOL headquarters are based in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, where they have been presided over for the last 24 years by Nicolas Leoz, the 82 year-old Paraguayan son of a Spanish immigrant.
For the past 18 months bid delegations have been making the long and rather convoluted journey to Asuncion to make their case to Dr Leoz. The former lawyer-turned-academic and football powerbroker holds one of the precious 24 Ex-co votes.
But with CONMEBOL expected to vote as a bloc in December he also has an important say in the destiny of the ballots of Ricardo Teixiera and Julio Grondona.
CONMEBOL’s support for Spain-Portugal’s bid for the 2018 finals is considered by most bid nations to be a fait accompli, but other European candidates are actively seeking South American support as their second choice.
In the 2022 bid race they are considered floating voters and non-European bid nations have been desperate to make their case to Leoz.
How to make friends and influence ex-co members
But how exactly does a bid nation win over a FIFA ex-co member, on whose whims the race for 2018 and 2022 effectively rests?
“There are many different levels of sports lobbying,” says one senior bid source.
“On one level you can go and present your case and wine and dine the necessary people. That makes an impression, particularly if you make the effort to meet them in their own country, where they are comfortable with their surroundings.
“But if you have nine bids continually seeking your ear and making the same presentations again and again this approach has its limitations.”
One strategy widely adopted is to host football development programmes on the home turf of an Ex-co member. Indeed both Holland-Belgium and England are employing that tactic in Trinidad – home of Jack Warner – this week, ahead of the Women’s Under-17 World Cup Final.
Sometimes – as in the case of Olympic lobbying – a national government will guide an Ex-co member to vote in the name of national interest. Tony Blair recently said that he believed his good relationship with Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi swayed Italy’s IOC members to vote for London to host the 2012 Olympics. Trade or national security interests can also play a role.
Another tactic is to stage an international friendly with the member association of the Ex-co member. Most bids consider this particularly effective. Not only do all the formalities associated with an international match bring bid leaders and Ex-co members into close contact, they generate goodwill and in many cases considerable revenue.
“It boosts the prestige of a small federation to play against the big boys, but such friendlies can also be the difference between a struggling football association and a thriving one,” says one source familiar with the process.
“It brings in gate revenues, but more significantly TV money. If you have Spain or England playing, no matter where, it is worth millions. A bid nation might be prepared to sign over most or all of that pot in order to curry favour with an ex-co member.”
Although the commercial agreements underpinning these encounters are undisclosed, a glance at the international football calendar reveals many such upcoming fixtures.
Next summer England play Thailand (Worwai Makudi’s home turf), while Spain are understood to have agreed to play a fixture in Qatar (Mohammed Bin Hammam) – although it is not clear who their opponents will be – having played Argentina (Julio Grondona) earlier this month.
Bid nations seek Leoz factor
But no country has been courted quite like Leoz’s Paraguay.
In the last 14 months his national team has played friendlies with Japan, South Korea, Qatar and Holland, and next month face Australia in Sydney. Earlier this month Australian bid leader Ben Buckley was in China at the same time as when the Paraguayan national team played a friendly match there.
In Asuncion the CONMEBOL HQ doors revolve almost daily with the arrival of bid delegations making their case.
“People come to see Dr Leoz every week, sometimes there will be two delegations there a week,” says one well placed source in Asuncion.
INSIDER has been told that Dr Leoz is – as FIFA rules demand – entirely independent of the Paraguayan government and there is no suggestion that he will have his vote guided by it.
It is, nevertheless, worth noting that the Emir of Qatar was last month in Paraguay, concluding a huge oil pipeline deal. The Qatari bid have always been reluctant to say what role the Emir – whose son, Sheikh Mohammed, leads the Qatari bid – is playing in the bid process,
but one source said that his recent international itinerary is “instructive” of his commitment to the bid’s success.
Yet despite the apparent attention of Qatar and Australia, INSIDER has been told that Leoz’s vote – and those of CONMEBOL – are destined for a surprise candidate: South Korea.
“Dr Leoz is a great friend of Chung Mong-joon,” says our source in Paraguay.
“The Koreans have been here twice in the last month or so. I understand he will be voting for them.”
“The South Americans highly value the ability and generosity of this great man,” Leoz said of Chung, when he visited the CONMEBOL headquarters last month.
“The phrase ‘football is a school of life taught to win and lose’ is a maxim that all men share football.”
Glowing comments indeed, even by the standards of FIFA speak.
But is this friendship a strong enough basis to deliver three votes for Korea in December?
As ever, in this opaque world of FIFA politics we can only possibly speculate.
Week in review
Good week for: Russia, who showcased their ambitious domestic legacy plans to the international media and garnered plenty of column inches worldwide.
Bad week for: Australia, whose bid leaders faced a no confidence call from an angry club owner as its domestic league faced further crises.
Both England and Russia were in Egypt presenting to the executive committee of CAF. England’s bid presentation included
two films: one which focussed on the FA’s extensive international development programme, the other which showed highlights from African players in the EPL – including Peter Odemwingie, the Russian-born Nigerian, whose treatment by Lokomotiv Moscow fans engulfed the Russian bid in a race storm.
Japan’s flagging campaign sought a lift as it presented to members of the international media in London and Paris, although it is not clear whether bid leader Junji Ogura met any of his fellow FIFA ex-co members while in Europe.
Ogura heads out to Trinidad for the Women’s Under-17 World Cup Final between Japan and South Korea tomorrow. Other bid delegations hoping to catch the ear of some FIFA Ex-co members out there – who also include Sepp Blatter, Jerome Valcke, Franz Beckenbauer and Jack Warner – are England and Holland-Belgium.
– FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke has warned against collusion between nations bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and says that he will be reminding bid nations of their obligations.
– Russia confirmed that they will be bringing their prime minister Vladimir Putin to Zurich for the final days of lobbying before FIFA’s D-day. England are expected to wheel out David Cameron, but which other world leaders will be there? INSIDER understands that Barack Obama is a long shot, but wouldn’t be surprised to bump into Bill Clinton at some stage.
– Australia’s domestic problems continued, with ousted A-League owner Con Constantine calling for the heads of FFA chiefs – and World Cup bid leaders – Frank Lowy and Ben Buckley. Many within the Australian game blame the FFA for ignoring the game’s grassroots in favour of the country’s World Cup bid, while the A-League languishes in a sorry state. Last weekend’s highest attendance was just 7080, while only 2037 people watched Gold Coast United’s game.
– Japan’s bid were unusually forthright in acknowledging that they had a “communications challenge” in selling their technologically focussed concept to the FIFA Executive.
– South Korea’s apparently fanciful idea of staging matches in the North looked a little more realistic following publication of a report that said that reunification was likely to happen during the 2020s.
– The notion that FIFA’s 24 executive members have long made up their minds over who to vote for was cast in doubt by Junji Ogura, who told INSIDER that he is waiting for the publication of FIFA’s inspection reports before making his mind up over who to choose for 2018. But how many of his colleagues are still “floating voters” and will be following suit?
Next week: World Football Insider publishes the third edition of its bid index.
By INSIDER’s James Corbett.
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