The Untold Story of the Tangled Politics That Landed Mexico the 1986 World Cup

This week at FIFA’s Congress, Mexico is gearing up to announce its intentions to bid for the 2026 World Cup. It’s a pursuit that has prompted questions from many, including The Washington Post, who asked, “Could Mexico steal the 2026 World Cup from the United States?”

It’s too early to answer that now – FIFA will decide the tournament’s host in 2020 – but if it did, it wouldn’t be the first time.

In 1982, when Colombia bowed out of hosting the competition of 1986 due to spiraling violence, Mexico swooped in and convinced FIFA that it should host instead – to the surprise and consternation of the United States. The U.S. – home to a league that boasted many of the world’s most famous soccer stars at the time – had, by all accounts presented, a far superior plan for the games. Leading the charge for the U.S. bid was the country’s top diplomat, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, both a cunning global strategist and a major soccer fan.

“Many of us who worked on the project for the United States to host [the 1986 World Cup] were confident that we were going to win. Even Kissinger believed that’s what would happen after conversations with [FIFA president João] Havelange,” soccer legend Pelé told Remezcla in an interview.

Henry Kissinger and Pelé
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Pelé was the former flagship player of the New York Cosmos in the National American Soccer League (NASL). The league – dreamt up by Steve Ross and his Warner Communications empire – was falling on hard times. Bringing the World Cup to the U.S. was Ross’ last hope at saving his mega investment from crumbling.

”The politics of soccer make me nostalgic for the politics of the Middle East.”

Ross played all of his cards right. He garnered support from the likes of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer – another Cosmos player at the time – and even Kissinger, who had been chair of the NASL’s Board of Governors since 1977. Kissinger even went so far as to try to get congressional support. But all that hustle failed to sway FIFA. Kissinger lamented at the time: “The politics of soccer make me nostalgic for the politics of the Middle East.”

So what happened?

Some suspect that backroom deals were at play. The U.S. was up against a powerful adversary in Mexican broadcasting giant Televisa, with its deep and longstanding ties to FIFA.

“Havelange always denied that he had been pressured by the powerful Mexican media group, but we were all shocked that the U.S. proposal wasn’t even considered,” Pelé said during our interview.

Guillermo Cañedo and Joao Havelange
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Televisa had a direct line to the organization holding all the cards; FIFA’s vice president at the time was Guillermo Cañedo, one of the company’s founders.

In addition to heading Mexico’s federation and having a hand in creating CONCACAF, Cañedo also established the Organización de la Televisión Iberoamericana (OTI), which controlled World Cup broadcasts across the region.

“Mexicans had already done a fantastic World Cup (in 1970), and the ties that were present between FIFA, or Havelange, and Mexico were many.”

As we know – especially in light of recent #FIFAGate scandals revolving around television rights for major international tournaments – TV rights can be crucial in deciding the ebb and flow of soccer spending. Mexico 1986 was no exception to this rule.

Soccer announcer Tony Tirado, who covered the 1986 World Cup for Spanish International Network (or SIN, a precursor to modern day Univisión), gained prominence for helping to bring soccer to the U.S. He says that he was close with Cañedo and João Havelange, FIFA’s president from 1974 to 1998. Tirado says that he can attest to the close connections between the broadcaster and the world soccer body. He states, “Havelange was a dear friend of Cañedo’s, a dear friend of Emilio Azcárraga,” Televisa’s chairman.

Mexico was ready to be the first country in FIFA’s history to host the World Cup for a second time back in those days.

“They had already done a fantastic World Cup [in 1970], and the ties that were present between FIFA, or Havelange, and Mexico were many,” said Tirado in a phone interview with Remezcla.

There ”couldn’t have been a more well-prepared or suitable host country than Mexico,” he explained. “The stadiums, the network of hotels. It was an ideal host.”

But not everyone agreed with that assessment.

Mexico went head to head with the U.S. and Canada to try to win the World Cup after Colombia bowed out.

“We lost a chance to showcase [Colombia] with the World Cup, but having Garcia Márquez’s Nobel Prize is full compensation.”

Colombia’s conservative president Misael Pastrana Borrero had made it his mission to host the World Cup after coming to power as a result of a later discredited election. He successfully lobbied FIFA in 1974 only to see Colombia’s hopes dashed as guerrilla warfare quickly prompted sweeping concern from all parties involved as 1986 approached.

In October of 1982, then Colombian president Belisario Betancur made his country’s withdrawal official in a powerful speech. “As we preserve the public good, and as we know that waste is unforgivable, I announce to you my countrymen that the 1986 World Cup will not be held in Colombia.”

The consolation prize, according to Betancur? “We lost a chance to showcase [Colombia] with the World Cup, but having Garcia Márquez’s Nobel Prize is full compensation.”

Azcárraga and Cañedo were ready to pounce.

“Tell the president to put on his best suit, because this World Cup will be inaugurated at the Estadio Azteca. Even if we have to cover up ruins with beer advertisements.” Azcárraga told Cañedo, according to Fabrizio Mejía Madrid’s history of Televisa Nación TV. “I want the World Cup logo to be Televisa,” he said. The similarities are uncanny.

The U.S. – or anyone else for that matter – seemingly didn’t have a chance.

In an extraordinary “vote” on May 20, 1983 in Stockholm, Mexico won unanimously.

Kissinger said FIFA’s special committee didn’t even pay the U.S. delegation a visit as requested. George Schwartz, chairman of the Canadian World Cup Bid Committee, held up the 90-page document that Canada submitted to FIFA and compared it to the 10-page document submitted by the Mexicans, which he dismissed as a “joke.”

In an extraordinary “vote” on May 20, 1983 in Stockholm – which can perhaps be more accurately described as an instruction from FIFA’s Executive Committee on who to vote for – Mexico won unanimously.

In 1984, the Cosmos dissolved. Soon after, the NASL disbanded. The U.S. would have to wait another four years to get its shot at hosting the main event.

But when asked who really robbed the show back then, Tirado had a different answer. “Maradona. He was sensational during that World Cup.”

Maradona and Argentina went on to defeat West Germany 3-2 in the final that summer. He won the Golden Ball and was forever dubbed the man with the “Hand of God.”

So that’s how most people remember Mexico 1986. But there are surely more stories left to be told.