World Cup Appears to Be More of a Flop Than Fiesta

Times Staff Writer

The 1986 World Cup soccer tournament is a week old today, but already there are disturbing signs that it is not going to be the fiesta that was forecast.

For one thing, the standard of play has been mediocre at best. None of the 18 games so far has lived up to expectations. The results, too, have been predictable. There have been no major upsets, no pleasant surprises.

On the field, weak officiating in what was billed as “the year of the referee” has resulted in players relying on force instead of finesse. Strength has been substituted for skill, and the quality of the games has suffered.

In the stands, the atmosphere that usually accompanies a World Cup has largely been missing. True, the Brazilians have enlivened things in Guadalajara, and the Italians, Danes and others have made themselves heard on occasion, but overall there seems to be an artificial quality about the celebrations.

It is almost as if the visiting foreign fans are afraid or embarrassed to allow their emotions free rein, surrounded as they are by so much poverty and distress. This is not the Mexican people’s World Cup; this is the World Cup of the privileged few, the rich and the influential.

Joao Havelange, the Brazilian president of FIFA, world soccer’s governing group, and a coterie of sycophantic admirers shuttle around the country by helicopter or jet aircraft, proclaiming over and over how perfect the organization is, how well everything is going.


Reality is being ignored. Everything is not going well. Inefficiency is the order of the day. David Miller, writing in The Times of London earlier this week, put it this way:

“The country as a whole is not awash with World Cup fever, other than that brought about by rampant disorganization. There are few posters or banners. Only the Mexicans’ unfailing charm prevents the thousands of accredited personnel from losing their tempers every five minutes with the worst administration of any World Cup.”

Nor does it seem that the organizers are particularly upset by the criticism that is being aimed at them from every direction. In the international press center here, computers keep spewing out volumes of nearly useless information, most of it badly translated propaganda. Direct questions are replied to with a shrug, a smile and a non-answer.

In the stadiums, smartly dressed girls hand out potential cancer in the form of free American cigarettes, or potential tooth decay in the form of a sweet American soft drink. Both are products of two of the World Cup’s 11 official sponsors.

Those sponsors, according to a lengthy investigation of soccer’s worldwide financial state that appeared this week in The Economist, a London-based newsmagazine, paid about $12 million each for the honor. Add that $132 million to the more than $55 million that was paid for broadcast rights, and it is easy to understand why organizers are not concerned that the stadiums are half empty.

With so much money already in hand, why worry that tickets have been priced beyond the reach of most Mexicans? How can a fan in Nezahualcoyotl, for example, be expected to attend a match when the lowest-priced ticket is equal to a week’s wages?

There is the pervasive feeling that the public and the media are both being manipulated and exploited. And both are responding in a manner that is sure to make this World Cup one of the most controversial.

The media, at least those elements not overwhelmed by the flood of hyperbole and public relations gimmickry, are asking increasingly tough questions. They might not be getting the answers, but at least their watchdog instincts are being re-established after years of taking everything FIFA said at face value.

Reporters want to know, for example, what exactly the relationship is between certain high FIFA officials and Televisa, the Mexican television giant that is making a fortune off the World Cup. Britain’s Granada television network plans an expose on Havelange, which, while it is unlikely to prove anything, will certainly raise further questions.

In short, corruption and conflict of interest are more often the topics of conversation among sportswriters here than are corner kicks and Cup favorites.

Meanwhile, the Mexican public’s reaction to the commercial takeover of the World Cup and to the state of the country as a whole was made perfectly plain within the last week.

At last Saturday’s opening ceremonies, Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid was booed and whistled at so loudly that his speech of welcome was entirely drowned out. What surprised many foreign journalists was that this was the reaction of the middle and upper classes, not the poor who had been priced out of Azteca Stadium.

Then, too, there was the reaction on Tuesday night to Mexico’s 2-1 victory that afternoon over Belgium. What started out as a peaceful celebration in the streets of the city quickly degenerated into a nightlong riot.

The toll, according to the Mexico City News, left more than 200 people in hospitals, most with minor injuries, and more than 100 in jail, most for minor offenses.

And the response to all this?

Unfortunately, it is one that will further dampen the already sodden spirits of this World Cup. The authorities promise more security, more police presence and a crackdown on revelers after today’s Mexico-Paraguay game.

Tuesday’s riot followed a Mexican victory. Sooner or later, Mexico is likely to lose. What will happen then is something that nobody really wants to contemplate.

The 1986 World Cup already has a bad enough feel to it. Pique, the tournament’s emblem, may smile, but the more common response here is a sneer from above and a snarl from below.