At a certain juncture during the New York Cosmos’ lengthy courtship of Pele in the mid-1970s, it became apparent that the Brazilian government might actually refuse to allow the country’s most prized national asset to leave. Knowing that sort of political intransigence had prevented the biggest clubs in Italy, Spain and Portugal from signing the player from Santos before, the Cosmos decided to try a different tack. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger accompanied one of the club’s delegations to Brazil where the central thrust of his rather blunt contribution to the debate was as follows: “Listen, America has done so much for Brazil that we’d now like you to loan us Pele.”
The Brazilians went berserk at the mere suggestion, but within a year, Pele was earning more than $1m a season in New York, while Kissinger became a regular visitor to the Cosmos dressing-room, and chairman of the North American Soccer League’s Board of Governors. While the public perception of him is as a war criminal or a master diplomat, depending on your political persuasion, Kissinger’s passion for soccer remains one of the few facets of his career not besmirched by controversy.
“I have been an avid fan ever since my youth in Fuerth, a soccer-mad city of southern Germany, which for some inexplicable reason won three championships in a three-year period, ” wrote Kissinger in an article for the Los Angeles Times on the day of the 1986 World Cup final. “My father despaired of a son who preferred to stand for two hours (there were very few seats) watching a soccer game rather than sit in the comfort of the opera or be protected from the elements in a museum.”
When the Kissingers fled Hitler’s Germany in 1938 and moved to New York via London, 15-year-old Heinz was renamed Henry but remained faithful to the game that had been the love of his life since he first took his bow as a schoolboy goalkeeper.
Appointed as a US Army interpreter in the closing stages of World War II, he soon found himself back in his newly-liberated home country where his fellow soldiers remember him spending his spare time driving a Mercedes (freshly confiscated from the Nazis) to amateur soccer matches. If the American GIs were suitably puzzled by soccer, it was to play a far more important role in the country’s subsequent foreign policy than they could ever have imagined.
In September 1970, a U-2 spy plane took aerial photographs of Cienfuegos, a naval base on Cuba’s south coast. Nobody thought much about their content until Kissinger saw them and marched into the office of President Nixon’s chief-of-staff HR Haldeman, demanding to see the commander-in-chief. As Haldeman eyed the reconnaissance photos, he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
“It’s a Cuban seaport, Haldeman, and these pictures show the Cubans are building soccer fields,” said an increasingly more irate Kissinger. “‘Those soccer fields could mean war.” When Haldeman still failed to make the connection between armed conflict and the beautiful game, the Secretary of State’s voice went up a notch.
“Cubans play baseball!” he said. “Russians play soccer!” That might have been a slight generalisation, but his surmising that freshly-lined soccer pitches represented telling evidence that there were Russians based in Cienfuegos proved correct. It emerged that the ever-hospitable Cubans had indeed decided to facilitate the recreational needs of their Russian visitors as they collaborated on the construction of a nuclear submarine base.
His love of soccer hasn’t always been so kind to his ambitions. Eight years after first befriending Pele, the two men sat alongside Franz Beckenbauer as this influential trio testified before US Congress about the financial and other benefits of bringing the World Cup to America. Their eloquence on behalf of the bid proved to be in vain when Kissinger subsequently met his match in former FIFA President Joao Havelange, learning the hard way that the sport’s decision-makers are capable of machinations that put the most corrupt politicians and, ahem, Nobel Prize winners to shame.
On 20 May, 1983, the FIFA executive gathered to hear Canada, Mexico and the US stake their claims to host the 1986 World Cup. After a Mexican presentation that lasted seven minutes, Kissinger gave an hour-long tour de force outlining the logistical merits of staging the tournament in America and the potential benefits for growing the game there. With Havelange and his officials apparently listening intently, Kissinger was interrupted by an aide informing him that the Mexicans were already enthusiastically celebrating their assured victory.
Embarrassed, he beat a hasty and angry retreat.
“The politics of FIFA,” said Kissinger of the whole experience, “they make me nostalgic for the Middle East.”
The biter bit.