1 FEBRUARY 2001
PALAIS DES FESTIVALS – CANNES – FRANCE
Walking and talking in Cannes not with the football glitterati, but with football’s working men and women, I remembered that soccer was culture. Not in the U.S., yet, to be sure, but certainly damn near everywhere else on the planet. With London-born Nigerian N. M. “Gus” Nwanokwu on my left, pontificating about the failure of UEFA transfer regulations, and Nigerian-born Londoner Ade Fabunmi-Stone on my right retorting that CONCACAF, CAF and FIFA don’t do nearly enough to move in the lives of young people, I could hardly think about what I had experienced on this whirlwind trip.
It began with a ghost flight.
My Air France flight had, tops, 5% of seats filled, so those of us on the flight had the services of the entire plane to ourselves. I talked with the flight attendants and pilots about – what else? – world football. Neither of the pilots could understand how I ever became a PSG fan (“You know Marseille is for the blacks, the underclass, the poor?” the co-pilot intoned, to which I responded that my PSG fandom was initially about George Weah but ultimately became about the city of Paris and my dreamy love for it), but they, along with the flight attendants, had an awful lot to say about FIFA.
“Voleurs!” offered one attendant. Thieves.
“Pourquoi?” I asked. Why?
“They take and take and take, and what do we get?” the attendant switched freely between languages, and could tell that English, and not French, was native to me. “Nothing. Nothing for the people.”
“Meh,” said another attendant, who had joined us just aft of the cockpit, blustering through pursed lips in that peculiar style of speaking the French have. “FIFA gives what they can; societies are to blame. But football? Non.”
“Have you heard of CONCACAF?” I offered.
“Non,” they both said in unison. I just shook my head.
It was that way everywhere, a truth I began to understand upon not just my arrival in Cannes, but even before that. There was just no status, no juice – outside smallish, proper soccer circles in the States – that came with being a part of CONCACAF; within those North American circles, however, you were seen as definitively internationalist in perspective and insight. You were no longer expected to spring from just a U.S.-centered worldview.
What I did find in Cannes was that there was similarly no juice, whatsoever, in saying “I’m in Special Projects with CONCACAF.” People just stared at you like you said nothing at all, until you continued on to submit that you were in town for Football Expo. Then they sent you on your way, locating you in and among the typified sport culture that was football in Europe. For most, it was similar to asking for directions to an Egg Convention: eggs, a common, regular part of life. That’s football most places.
The night Football Expo started, I discovered that most features found in the world can be found in a gathering of folks in world football. Wondering where the true charity work going on in football is? Let me introduce you to Doug Myers, who found me that first night and told me everything there was to know about his International Soccer Exchange Program. On the lookout for hustlers? Gus and Ade fit that bill; not that they were looking to hustle someone, per se; rather, they were hustling for business. Being where the ostensible action was, so to speak.
I peeled off from Gus and Ade, saying my goodbyes, and headed to Conference 6.
IS MODERN FOOTBALL IN DANGER OF LOSING ITS APPEAL? the signboard outside the conference hall doors submitted.
“Not for me,” I murmured to myself. Having just begun a career in world football days ago, I was in no mood to consider the notion that I had gotten in on the down side of a football bubble. Indeed, I was here, in the main, to hear from an American soccer expert I thought compelling, and to see if the on-stage discourse was as news-breaking as had been some of the other, earlier panels.
On the morning of day one – following a glittering reception the night before at the Carlton Intercontinental, where I met Gus and Ade – a panel called THE TRANSFER REVOLUTION…AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR CLUBS was barely held on-task by superb moderator Keir Radnedge as Arsenal FC Vice-Chairman David Dein worked fascinatingly hard to derail the panel with angry pontifications about doom and gloom as they related to Real Madrid’s cultivation and signing of young French star Nicholas Anelka. Dein’s anger at not only Madrid’s signing of the player, but what he thought that meant for the death of football, was laughable. As a PSG fan, I could have leveled the same charge at Arsenal when Anelka left Parc Des Princes, but if a player wants to leave…let him leave. Dein obviously didn’t feel the same way, and his fiery commentary made sports-page news around the globe the next day.
Would this final panel be as tasty? I entered the hall to find out.
On the FOOTBALL LOSING ITS APPEAL? panel were broadcasting and commentary genius Martin Tyler, who, regrettably, I never did get to meet; Gerry Boon, from Deloitte; and three people I did get to rap with: Keith Cooper, the Voice of the Twenty-Four and of FIFA; Rogan Taylor, representing Liverpool University and an academic take on football I found boorish; and, finally, American Lynn Berling-Manuel, president and publisher of SOCCER AMERICA, one of the few legit U.S. magazines sharing the excitement of the sport from my own, homegrown, perspective. I always found Berling-Manuel’s commentary and submissions cogent and insightful, and looked forward to talking with another American about world football after hearing from her.
I don’t remember a thing anyone said, but I do remember what happened afterwards.
In the audience I found Berling-Manuel talking happily with who ended up being Hank Steinbrecher, formerly Secretary General of the United States Soccer Federation, from 1990 to 2000, and there representing his newly formed “consultancy,” Touchline. I approached as he and Berling-Manuel’s conversation and body language indicated that they were wrapping up.
“Ms. Berling-Manuel?” I asked.
She turned graciously. “Hi, are you are?”
“Mel Brennan, newly with CONCACAF. I don’t have a business card, but…”
“Hank; good to meet you,” Steinbrecher gruffed good-naturedly, handing me his business card and saying quick goodbyes before moving to catch someone else up the aisle.
Proudly I continued with Berling-Manuel: “I work for Chuck Blazer.”
Berling-Manuel’s eyes clouded, just for an instant, her expression becoming dour and taut. “Chuck, huh…?” she said with intent. “Chuck is an…interesting guy.”
With that, she moved up the aisle, and went about the rest of her life.
But her submission has stayed with me for the remainder of my own. Something about the way her face and tone changed led me to believe two things: one, that there was a whole host of stories behind that one phrase; two, that working for the world’s most prolific sport wouldn’t always bring a smile to people’s faces…that sometimes, football, and its leadership, really pissed people off.