Soccerex, 20 years ago, was the first organisation to see how the burgeoning industry-specific convention model could ‘work’ for football. As market leader it secured a niche as gateway event to not merely the World Cup itself but associated qualifying draws etc.
That success inspired others and the European autumn, over the last 10 years, has been jam-packed with sports business conferences jostling for calendar space and big-name keynote speakers to attract the duality of media and sponsors.
The ability of Soccerex to maintain its status in some fraught venues around the world spoke volumes for the work of ceo Duncan Revie and his team. That Rio proved too complex even for Soccerex does not reflect well on Brazil [The issue of how Brazil ‘won’ the World Cup in a way which engendered arrogant complacency is dealt with in part at http://tinyurl.com/nr7omsy].
Conferences such as Soccerex are private, ‘soft’ events compared with the major sports extravaganzas such as the World Cup and Olympic Games off whose success and worldwide visibility they feed.
The Soccerex cancellation is a back-handed compliment, suggesting it may have become almost too successful: if Soccerex were not so high-profile it would not have been swept away by the political/financial maelstrom swirling around not only the World Cup but the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
To start with security:
The Brazilian government, never mind FIFA, proved unhappily detached from the people’s pulse when it was taken utterly by surprise with events during the Confederations Cup last June.
Unrest had been sparked by what might appear from outside as a minor matter, the raising of bus fares in Sao Paulo. The protest spark exploded into a conflagration representing a latent sense of social injustice exacerbated by World Cup costs [Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo argued in vain that the World Cup investment was minimal compared with its social welfare expenditure].
The staging of the Confederations Cup, with coincidentally perfect timing, offered a forest of opportunity through which the fires of fury could rage.
Emollient words and vague proposals from President Dilma Rousseff were greeted with scepticism. Sporadic protests over one issue or another have continued, in particular in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Those protests have been denied worldwide attention for the simple reason that the football circus went away for a year.
Rebelo was generally considered to be whistling in the wind last week when he said that the World Cup finals would be one long trouble-free party because Brazilians would be too busy enjoying themselves.
That was not giving his compatriots – many benefiting from a rising standard of living and eye-widening education – much credit for use of their own intelligence.
If Brazilian politicians really thought that way then Soccerex would still be going ahead.
This is not the first World Cup-linked conference driven off course.
Football For Hope in Belo Horizonte, staged to coincide with a Confed Cup semi-final there, had to be switched to a ‘secret’ venue; FIFA president Sepp Blatter, due to give the keynote address, stayed away.
In the meantime, another storm was building. Not out in the streets but in the corridors of power in Rio where the issue of Olympic preparation costs is a related tinderbox.
After Rio won the Games in 2009, it took London 2012 as its operational model. The Autoridade Pública Olímpica was modelled on the Olympic Development Authority whose composition and focus so impressed Brazilian NOC president Carlos Arthur Nuzman.
However it was resented by city politicians, notably the Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes. He pushed for the APO to be scrapped, especially once its chairman, Marcio Fortes, had resigned in frustration in August, complaining about obstacles at every turn.
Subsequently the opposition to the APO’s existence of both Paes and Rio state governor Sérgio Cabral Filho was put before Rousseff. Rio’s predictable case was that the ADO was a waste of monies which city and state could use far more effectively.
Rousseff was not going to let Paes and Cabral push her around. At the start of last month she appointed a new chairman in Army Major-General Fernando Azevedo e Silva, a former head of the national military sports commission.
A common denominator in the all of this is Maracana which will host the World Cup Final and then the Olympic Opening and Closing ceremonies.
The iconic stadium, owned by the state, has been redeveloped at the cost of massive budgetary over-spend and its operation has been awarded to a private consortium. Critics have attacked that as a further example of public funds being used to generate wealth for the private sector.
This is the Kafaesque complexity of financial dealings which can used as both an excuse and a weapon to embarrass the government.
Hence while Soccerex claimed that the cancellation order was a “political decision” the state government responded that it was a financial issue because the company had not taken advantage of the Sports Incentive Law.
This offers companies tax breaks when sponsoring athletes, teams and sporting events.
A statement added: “The state’s recommendation was made to avoid having the state use public funds to sponsor Soccerex.” It added that Rio was perfectly able to “ensure safety during any event.”
That this latter claim was arrant nonsense was evidenced by an assault, hours earlier, on Public Order Minister Alex Costa while he was undertaking a TV interview in a city centre car park.
So, the state appeared to be saying, if you don’t take our money you can’t expect our . . . um, money.
This is the sort of baffling schizophrenia which extends way beyond the commercial battleground.
Hundreds of thousands, or maybe millions, of protesters will take to the streets again in June and July. Yet, conversely, Brazilians were revealed by FIFA this week to have gobbled up a record lion’s share of the first batch of tickets to go on sale.
Politics? Finance? Two sides of the same coin … and Soccerex was that very coin being flipped in the air
Not the first and, doubtless, not the last.