The recent Copa América in Argentina ended with victory for Uruguay in the final held at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. Having beaten favourites Argentina in the quarter finals en route, they have now won more Copa América tournaments than any other team, and, having reached the semi-finals of the 2010 world cup in South Africa, few can argue Uruguayan football isn’t on the ascendancy.
In 19 years time is the centenary of the first world cup and humble back-room discussions of it being played once again in Uruguay began to take shape in the early 1990s. The first formal discussions took place in October 2005 when FIFA president Sepp Blatter visited the Uruguay to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1930 world cup. He met with then Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez who suggested the idea of the country hosting the tournament jointly with another Mercosur (a regional trade bloc) nation.
Sepp Blatter said of the meeting: “The president told me his dream of seeing this tournament hosted in the region. I told him that today’s dream could be tomorrow’s vision, which in turn could become a proper initiative and finally a project.”
The 1930 competition was a much smaller affair compared to modern times as many European teams refused to make the journey to Uruguay. A total of 32 teams played 64 matches in ten stadiums in the 2010 tournament in South Africa – significantly more than the 13 teams who competed in 18 matches in 1930. And in only three stadia were used – the Centenario, Estadio Pocitos (a small ground with capacity for just 1,000 supporters) and the Estadio Parque Central with room for around 25,000 fans.
Two years later, in October 2007, Julio Grondona, president of the Argentine Football Association (AFA), accepted an invitation to be part of the project: “The AFA unanimously approved applying for your initiative to jointly organise the FIFA World Championship 2030. Undoubtedly, to crystallize this purpose will lead to further deepen the friendly ties that forever bind the two countries, and hence sports and government officials on both sides of the Río de la Plata will work together in order to meet the final goal of hosting the 2030 World Cup.”
Later that month, support was also received from CONMEBOL, the South American football confederation. And in June 2010, a day before the start of the 2010 World Cup, the bid was officially proposed to Sepp Blatter in Johannesburg.
Further support was received earlier this month as the discussions were taken to the highest level – it was discussed at a presidential summit between Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and José Mujica.
Working closely together and taking the opportunity to build closer relationships between the countries was the main motivation here. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner commented “One of the keys is not only dialogue and integration, but also association, because being a member helps all sides win,” while José Mujica sees a point the countries need to prove: “For too many decades we have lived with our backs turned to each other in Latin America, always looking toward Europe, always admiring what’s far away. Now the time has come to take notice that our future will be determined with our neighbours, that we suffer from the same difficulties, and that we escape them together or not at all.”
Aside from the opportunity for the world cup to be jointly hosted by one of the oldest football rivalries, other benefits to the countries have been highlighted.
Hector Lescano, Uruguayan tourism and sports minister, said: “Organising a World Cup gives a chance to promote the countries, to promote tourism, culture, to boost infrastructure, transport, communications and nowadays it would be impossible for Uruguay to do it on its own, but jointly with Argentina, it’s different and a great chance.”
Uruguay’s Tourism and Sports minister Hector Lescano said: “Motivation is very strong: its none less than the centennial of the first world cup, which had as finalists our two countries. This should be an unbeatable argument for hosting the event.”
A potential competitor for the 2030 world cup is an ambitious consortium of the ten south-east Asian countries that form the ASEAN regional body. “This is a good way to boost our unity,” explained ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan. The idea does resonate with FIFA’s aim to take football to new parts of the world and ASEAN have been quick to point out that football is already well-established in Latin America. ASEAN also denounce logistical issues as problems: “I think we will be integrated as a region by 2030. I am optimistic that distances won’t hamper our ambitions.”
Only one other world cup has been jointly hosted – the 2002 tournament held in Japan and South Korea. Both countries initially pursued separate bids but joined forces shortly before the vote. The tournament was hailed as a success and raised the profiles of both countries, but due to initial difficulties regarding decisions of where to hold the important games and the naming of the tournament, FIFA declared joint bids would be accepted in the future.
Mixed messages have been received since then. The Libya and Tunisia joint bid for the 2010 tournament was disregarded out of hand. But then joint bids from Belgium and the Netherlands, and from Portugal and Spain for the 2018 and 2022 world cups respectively were accepted by FIFA.
The average stadia capacity in South Africa was 51, 500 with an average match attendance of 49,500. Compare this with the average capacity of the seven Argentine stadia used for the Copa América of 40,250 and it becomes clear that facilities will need to be expanded to cope with the additional fans. Even the Estadio Centennial can now fit only 66,000 fans, while there are just another five stadia in Uruguay with a capacity over 20,000.
A previous attempt to host the centenary of a major global event in the first host country went awry in the 1990s. Athens, founder of the ancient Olympics and the location of the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, lobbied furiously for the competition to be held there in 1996, but the decision controversially went in favour of Atlanta in the US. Greece had to wait a further eight years for the Olympics to return home.
However, this time it appears Uruguay and Argentina have set out their stalls early with FIFA and have high level support both domestically and across Latin America.
In 1930, Uruguayan captain Jose Nasazzi said: “In the days leading up to the final, you could already tell the Centenario would be completely packed. We knew it was our big chance to beat Argentina, with whom we enjoyed a fierce rivalry at the time. And that’s what happened. The atmosphere and our fighting spirit overwhelmed the Argentines.”
This passion among the fans and players remains both in Uruguay and Argentina. A world cup based around the Río de la Plata would be a mouth-watering prospect. It is too bad we will have to wait until the end of the decade to discover if the bid is successful.