Let's Hope the World Cup Itself Is This Competitive

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Soccer may be "a game played by gentlemen and watched by hooligans," but the game’s administrators are in a category all on their own. With the lucrative rights to host the 2006 World Cup up for grabs this week, soccer officials from South Africa, England, Morocco, Germany and Brazil have dispensed with all politeness and gentleman’s agreements in a mad scramble to impress FIFA, the sport’s international governing body which chooses the venue for the world’s largest sporting event. There’s no limit to the kitschy associations invoked by the contestants: South Africa’s bid, signed by ex-President Nelson Mandela, made hosting the cup the ultimate validation of its struggle against apartheid -– although not all of FIFA would have been comfortable with a presentation backed by chanting Zulu warriors; England stressed "bringing the game back home" (soccer was invented in England) and serenaded FIFA with a bunch of singing school children; and Germany laid on beer, bratwurst and an accordion band while claiming that hosting the cup would somehow put the seal on that country’s post-Cold War reunification.

With Brazil (stabbed in the back by criticism from its greatest soccer legend, Pele) and Morocco already showing signs of falling by the wayside, the outcome may be based less on what the three front runners say about themselves than on what they say about each other. South Africa is considered the favorite on the basis of FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s commitment to give the tournament to Africa for the first time, but both England and Germany rush to dismiss such sentimentality, insisting that the country’s epidemic of violent crime and weaknesses in its infrastructure disqualify it as a serious contender. South Africa shoots back that the notorious hooliganism of England’s fans make nonsense of its claim to be a "safe pair of hands" for hosting the tournament. Germany has also signaled its displeasure over England breaking what it considered to be a gentleman’s agreement under which Germany supported England’s bid to host the Euro ’96 tournament in exchange for English support for Germany’s World Cup 2006 bid. When international body makes its decision in July 2000, the choice is likely to revolve around whether the emotional appeal of giving Africa its first World Cup tournament outweighs concerns over South Africa’s crime and infrastructural problems. Unless, of course, Germany manages to coax the African nation into another gentleman’s agreement, under which South Africa backs a German World Cup in 2006 in exchange for the promise of German support to host 2010. Maybe they ought to let the players work it out.