At the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year, Mike Lee sat in the Russian headquarters, already pretty sure who would win Thursday’s World Cup bids — Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022.
Lee, sports consultant extraordinaire, knows about winning and leading an underdog to victory. He helped bring the 2012 Olympics to London when Paris was the favorite and the 2016 Summer Games to Rio in the face of a Chicago bid boosted by US President Barack Obama.
His apparent mastery of story-telling — identifying and packaging a candidate’s compelling narrative — continues to deliver what his grateful clients regard as fairytale wins in sports’ biggest bidding contests.
He proved it again on Thursday, part of the team of the tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar that upset the US and three other challengers to clinch the only sports event on a par with the Olympics.
“You take pride if you are counted out and cynics describe you as a total outsider,” Lee said. “Then you make progress and start a campaign that allows you to be taken seriously.”
The Midas touch? Close, but not quite. He did lose the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, Russia, when he was backing Salzburg, Austria.
Lee, a stocky Englishman with floppy hair parted down the middle, is part of a small group of elite sports consultants who drive bids for World Cups or Olympics in ways often hard to comprehend even for insiders. Thursday proved that few things are more unpredictable.
England lobbied for three days with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince William and soccer’s equivalent of royalty, David Beckham.
The group spent ￡15 million (US$23 million) during two years of bidding and boasts the world’s finest and richest league and state-of-the-art stadiums. The result was two votes out of 22 for the 2018 bid and a stunning first-round elimination.
Perhaps the outcome would have been different had talks with Lee to advise the England bid worked out better.
That left the 2022 contest open to him — “I wouldn’t want to have been involved in opposing my own country” — and last year he was signed up by Qatar, where he previously worked on Doha’s short-lived tilt at the 2016 Olympics.
In traditional soccer terms, Qatar had little going for it to win the 2022 bid, with its desert heat, inconsequential league, no star players and few major stadiums. The US seemed to have everything going its way, yet Lee and Qatar set to work.
Such consultants often work in the shadows, hidden behind cigars or coffee in five-star hotel lobbies pushing the message home with decision-makers and opinion -leaders day in, day out if necessary.
It is work made even more delicate in an atmosphere where allegations of corruption to win bids thrive. It takes constant attention to get the message across.
Lee’s feel for shaping Qatar’s appeal to FIFA was helped by time spent as UEFA’s communications director. Back then, the European soccer authority was supporting a failed effort to unseat FIFA president Sepp Blatter in his 2002 re-election.
“UEFA was a very important time for me to learn a lot about international football politics,” said Lee, who has since helped London and Rio court Blatter, who is an International Olympic Committee member.
Lee’s work for Rio’s 2016 Olympic bid hinged heavily on the appeal of a freethinking, fun-loving nation. Rio won the bid last year and Thursday’s presentation by Qatar echoed a lot of the same themes, as well as the appeal of bringing the World Cup to a new frontier.
Often depicted as spin doctors working for the highest bidder, Lee said there were several ground rules for his type of job. No. 1 was belief.
“A great bid has to have at its core a strong technical case, and only then can you launch an emotional appeal,” he said.
Lee, brimming with confidence, can now throw his weight behind South Korea’s Pyeongchang, which is seeking to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Like Qatar, Pyeongchang’s bid will feature an element of seeking out new frontiers.
Pyeongchang is bidding for the third consecutive time after narrow losses for the 2010 and 2014 Games. It faces Munich, Germany, and Annecy, France, this time. The IOC will select the winner next July.
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