One week into 2017 permit me to repeat a story I have told a few times before in several media in the past 13 years. I am doing so again only because I watched an interview on CNN of Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, on the eve of the New Year that should interest West African.
Infantino spoke about the positive reaction of football federation presidents around the world to his proposal that the World Cup finals be expanded from 32 to 48 countries.
He gave the assurance that the biding process will be more transparent and that hosting it will benefit more countries not ‘impoverish’ the host. For those reasons, from the 2026 edition, FIFA would seriously welcome a co-hosting of the World Cup by 3 or more neighbouring countries!
That’s the reason for my story.Shortly after the 2002 World Cup, jointly hosted byKorea and Japan in a historic collaboration, FIFA concluded that the joint hosting experiment was not the success initially envisaged and decided not to pursue that system again.
Not everyone was in agreement it seemed. Some people felt that what the system needed was a tweaking and further fine-tuning, not it’s outright abandonment. Before he was axed from the FIFA executive committee, Michel Platini had mooted the idea of a European Cup of Nations to be jointly hosted by a group of European countries rather than one.
Coming back from Japan in 2002 I saw the bigger benefit of co-hosting the World Cup, particularly by poorer countries that could benefit more from the experience. I shared my thoughts with the then Nigerian Minister of Sports, late Stephen Akiga.
He initially thought it was ‘madness’ to suggest what I proposed. It took a while before he started to see a little of the picture I painted of a truly innovative African World Cup. I told him I could arrange for us to meet with Mr. Sepp Blatter to share the vision so that the FIFA president’s reaction would help him take a final stand on my ‘crazy’ idea.
Surprisingly, he agreed.Within days I secured an appointment for us to meet with Mr. Blatter in the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland.At the end of the Commonwealth Games in 2003 in Manchester, UK, we flew to Zurich for the appointment.
The minister came with his Senior Special Adviser, Gboyega Okegbenro.The meeting held in the FIFA president’s office with Mr. Walter Gagg, the then head of the technical department in FIFA in attendance.
After all the pleasantries, Mr. Akiga told the president our mission and asked me to speak to the subject. It took a few minutes but my message was simple – anew World Cup format hewn from the lessons of Korea/Japan 2002; the first to beheld in Africa; it would not impoverish the host but benefit an entire region of the continent; it will be hosted by 4or 5 neighbouring countries led by Nigeria in the West African sub-region with a population of over 250 million people.
The benefits of such an arrangement were enormous –travel between the countries would be a breeze; the cost of hosting will be shared by 4 or 5 countries; the dreams of the founding political fathers of West Africa will come true including a single currency, a borderless region, the evolution of a regional economic and social hub, a single visa requirement for all the countries, a super highway from Lagos to Abidjan, a West African mono-rail system, co-operating security and immigration agencies, a huge economic market, proper cultural integration, a tourism industry boost, and so on and so forth.
It will be a catalyst for the broadest and fastest regional infrastructural development programme in the Third World.It was an idea I had sold to private sector specialists from the World Bank and they had agreed it was not just a great idea but also one that would attract their support.
Mr. Blatter caught the vision immediately. He told the now mesmerized Minister that should Nigeria propose it and secure the support of the other West African countries, FIFA would enthusiastically re-consider their stand on co-hosting and give it another look-in!
On our return to Abuja we went straight from the airport to the office of the then Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, where the minister delivered Mr. Blatter response. The Vice President went immediately to brief President Olusegun Obasanjo with whom he had a great political romance up till that point.
He came back a few minutes later with the good news -Mr. President had not only approved the idea but also directed the setting up a committee to do a proper feasibility, clearly look at the project’s viability, challenges, as well as the political and cost implications of such a monumental project.
In short, things moved rapidly. Within weeks the committee hand-delivered letters from the Nigerian President to the Presidents of Benin, Togo, Ghana and the Cameroons selling the idea and seeking their necessary buy-in.
By the time the committee returned from its West African contact tour the general reaction was unprecedented excitement in those countries. Nigeria was the only exception.
A segment of the Nigerian media had vehemently risen against the whole concept of hosting another international event so soon after the scandalous financial fraud called COJA 2003!
The co-hosting idea with neighbours was considered unrealistic and a ploy to loot the Nigerian treasury as had been the practice in the past.Meanwhile, the Federal Executive Council of the Nigerian government met over the matter and approved the project on the condition that it will be co-hosted by the listed African neighbours!
Unfortunately, the project did not leave the tarmac of implementation. Beyond the public and some media outcry against it, Thambo Mbeki, the then President of the Republic of South Africa, nailed its coffin when he got President Obasanjo to concede the bidding right for the 2010 World Cup to South Africa in exchange for South Africa’s support for Nigeria’s interest to host the Commonwealth Games that was also in contemplation at the time.
The Nigerian President had no qualms about shutting down the entire project. That’s how it was asphyxiated.Looking back now, even I agree that it was not the most auspicious of times to have undertaken that venture. Not with the levels of corruption both in FIFA and in Nigeria. It would have been turned into another reckless financial jamboree.
That was 13 years ago.Last week as 2016 went to bed, I saw the Infantino-interview on television and it resurrected the vision of a World Cup to be co-hosted by 4 to 5 countries in the year 2030!
Meanwhile, the world is a different place now. FIFA is been wiped clean of its ignoble past, just as Nigeria is been cleansed of her reputation as a country infested with the cancer of corruption.
Those that have the eyes to peer into the future should now shine them. This time, the idea of co-hosting is mooted and driven by the FIFA President. That means that unlike in 2003 this new FIFA is ready to embrace co-hosting from the 2026 World Cup.
West Africa must seize the moment and opportunity now. The leaders of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire should set up a small group of stakeholders to examine Infantino’s idea of co-hosting the World Cup in 2030 by combining resources to organize the next African World Cup.
It will be a truly unique, first-of-its-kind event that would not impoverish any one of the countries but would, instead, benefit the entire region through the essential infrastructural developments that will take place in order to accommodate the guaranteed 1 million-plus army of football followers from all over the world that would come to celebrate the beautiful game in an exotic part of the world that is very rich in the football culture.