Blatter's insistence on being the FIFA president who brought the World Cup to Africa goes back a few years now. If he had got his way the first time he floated the idea, it would have been the 2006 edition that went to Africa. When it came time to vote on that one, in 2000, the supposedly smooth procedure went into Tilt, big time. South Africa was the favorite, but something happened, and it was Germany that got the prize.
And it was poor old Charlie Dempsey, New Zealand's representative, who got the blame. Dempsey -- who died a couple of weeks back -- had been "instructed" by his Confederation, Oceania, to vote for South Africa. He didn't. In fact -- claiming that he had been put under enormous pressure, implying that he had been offered a bribe, even implying that he had been threatened -- Dempsey didn't vote at all. And his abstention allowed the Germans to claim the 2006 World Cup by one vote.
There was no such drama, no screw-ups, when the next vote came round in May 2004. South Africa triumphed easily with a 14-10 margin on the first ballot.
For the first time, the World Cup had been awarded to a minor soccer country, obviously more for political than soccer reasons. Hold on, though. This was not the first time. A similar scenario had been acted out in 1988, when FIFA, under the presidency of Joao Havelange, awarded the 1994 World Cup to the USA.
There were no compelling soccer reasons for the USA to be given the honor. Just commercial reasons. Market reasons. The plan was to hoist the USA -- with all its sponsors and its television interest and it's wealth -- firmly on to the soccer bandwagon.
And it needs to be said that despite the doubters and doomsayers (again, mostly Europeans) things worked out pretty well. The 1994 World Cup drew the biggest crowds ever, and it provided -- as FIFA had hoped -- a starting point for a new pro league, MLS. And, by the skin of its teeth, the U.S. national team managed to keep alive the tradition that the host team always qualifies for the second round of the tournament.
The immediate prospects for South Africa 2010 do not look anything like as rosy. The national team is playing poorly, and insistent rumors predict that the tournament will have to be shifted -- because of failure to meet stadium construction deadlines, or lack of hotel accommodation, or poor transport, or a soaring crime wave, any or all of the above.
So loud have the voices become that Danny Jordaan, the CEO of the South African Organizing Committee recently felt obliged to ridicule them: "I think it was a misconception in the world that there was a so-called Plan B," he said. "It was just not real. I think it's ignorance, frankly."
His statement convinced no one, and was promptly contradicted by, of all people, Blatter himself, who said there was indeed a Plan B, but it would be activated only in the event of a natural disaster.
That sounded reasonable enough, but it let the cat out of the bag, and led to intense speculation about which the Plan B country or countries might be, that would be able to organize the mammoth event with only two years or less in which to do it.
Three names surfaced at once: Germany, England, and the USA. Germany, because it staged the event only two years ago; England because it has plenty of money, plenty of stadiums, and is actively pursuing the 2018 World Cup; and the USA for similar reasons to England -- with the slight advantage, perhaps, that it would avoid having two consecutive tournaments being staged in Europe.
United States Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati scornfully dismisses the idea that he is having secret negotiations with FIFA about the problem. He admits only to a couple of desultory, almost offhand, exchanges with Sepp Blatter.
But ... that begs a question. Blatter, in admitting to a plan B, remarked "I would be a very negligent president if I hadn't put away in a drawer somewhere a Plan B." And what kind of a president would Sunil Gulati be if, as the possibility of a "help-us-out" call from FIFA grows, he were idly twiddling his thumbs as against investigating dates, stadium possibilities, hotel prices and the like?
Even assuming that both England the USA can achieve the minor miracle of organization necessary, that fact remains that both countries are considering bidding for future World Cups. They would be unlikely to give up those plans -- that would allow them the full six-year time period that is now considered the minimum necessary to fully organize the event.
Blatter has now confirmed that he has "spoken with" three countries that "would be able to stage the World Cup" with one year of preparation. So we await the dropping of the second soccer shoe. England? Germany? USA? Or will it be labeled South Africa anyway, with all this stoking of rumors merely the blithely smiling Blatter's way of lighting a fire under the South Africans and so getting them to speed up the pace of their preparations?