Soccer’s governing body FIFA has had its share of troubles over the past few months as top officials became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals.
It almost faced another unwanted headline Saturday when high winds in Rio de Janeiro threatened to blow the roof off the temporary venue hosting the draw for the qualifying rounds of the next World Cup that will be held in Brazil in 2014.
While the roof held fast, one pairing almost brought down the house. At the end of the two-hour spectacular, defending World Cup champions Spain were drawn to face powerhouse European neighbor France in a group containing Belarus, Georgia, and Finland. Other enticing draws include Japan versus North Korea, Mexico going up against Costa Rica, and the three former Yugoslavian republics of Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia being drawn in the same group in Europe.
All in all, more than 200 teams were involved in a draw that cost $20 million to put on and was helped by former greats such as Ronaldo and Cafu, and new young stars such as Santos’s Neymar.
Between bossa nova and samba performances, they picked balls from pots to set up qualifying groups in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe, and Central America, North America, and the Caribbean. There was no draw for South America as the teams play each other on a round robin basis and Brazil qualifies automatically as host nation. (See the full draw HERE.)
There was news outside the venue, too. Near to where the thousands of politicians and soccer international dignitaries were meeting, a few hundred protesters gathered to demand a corruption-free tournament.
Fans wearing shirts of all four big Rio teams stood shoulder to shoulder to protest overspending and call for the resignation of Ricardo Teixeira, the man who heads the Brazilian Football Confederation and is in charge organizing the 2014 competition.
Brazil’s preparations are already late and suspiciously over budget and the fans believe that Mr. Teixeira is not an appropriate person to organize a World Cup.
He did not invite his old enemy Pelé to the draw and caused controversy on the eve of the event by calling the English “corrupt” and “pirates.”
A Congressional inquiry once accused him of crimes including embezzlement, money laundering, and organized crime although he was not formally charged and has never been found guilty of any crime.
“Ricardo Teixeira has a deservedly famous [reputation] for being corrupt,” says Roberto Morales, one of the organizers of the protest. “He is part of FIFA’s suspicious business scheme.”
The fans promised more protests in the months and years to come but it remains to be seen whether they gain any traction with average supporters.
Teixeira probably won't care anyway. He was a winner this weekend as Brazil passed its first organizational hurdle ahead of 2014.
France and Spain are hoping they can say the same and be present in Brazil in three years time.