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May 31, 1998

Encounters: A tale of two pitches

Can a US client really appreciate the meaning of having World Cup tickets?

An IR consultant who turns down an opportunity to pitch for a major account is rare. Over the years, I've known several who refused because the potential client is a competitor of an existing one and a few who have done it for ethical reasons. But doing it because the date of the pitch is inconvenient is very, very rare. Grandmothers' funerals, Good Friday, Yom Kippur or Diwali, elections, vacations, Pavarotti tickets and even weddings have not been impediments to the quest for fees.

But Alistair was in a serious crisis. He had been invited to present in New York at 11.30 am on Wednesday, June 10.

Most readers will have realized from his name that Alistair has Scottish blood flowing through his veins. In fact, he was born in Glasgow although he now heads up a major counselling firm in London.

Some of you, mostly outside the US, will have grasped immediately or worked out his problem with the scheduling of the pitch.

For the rest, let me explain. On that day at 5.30 pm in Paris (11.30 am in New York) Scotland and Brazil kick off the opening game of the World Cup. And Alistair, by some miracle, had tickets.

Those of you asking, 'What World Cup?' might just as well stop reading now. We are talking about the beautiful game, football (and I mean the version in which the ball is played with the foot). I believe it is called soccer by those who follow other codes.

'In any other country in the world they would understand my dilemma and be sympathetic,' said Alistair. 'But if I call the States and ask for the presentation to be rescheduled, they'll think I'm not taking them seriously.'

'You would have thought that the world's greatest democracy would be really into the world's most democratic game,' he went on. I asked what he meant. 'Well,' he said, 'you don't have to be a particular physical type: some great stars have been short and stocky, others tall and skinny. It can be a means of expression for people who are impulsive and aggressive and for those who are inhibited and thoughtful. And, above all, a game between kids in the street playing in worn out sneakers and using coats as goal posts can be just as exciting as top players in a top stadium.'

I didn't believe Alistair would contemplate postponing a pitch to watch kids in the street but said nothing. Instead, I suggested that kids' 'soccer' was very big in the US.

'Yes, maybe' he said. 'But it's not in people's hearts and souls; it's not part of the national psyche.'

'But America has its games,' I answered. 'Football, if you'll pardon the expression, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.'

'That's the point,' he replied. 'America has its games and the rest of the world has theirs. There's no meeting of minds. Apart from the Olympics, America doesn't play with the rest of the world. And that's only once every four years. Anyway, olympic sports aren't really genuine points of contact between the peoples of the world.'

'I remember when I was at college, meeting a group of Finnish students on a ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm,' he continued, going all wistful on me. 'We didn't speak each others' languages but we had a long conversation. Someone would say a name, Pele, everyone said Is good and then we all said Is good and had a drink. And so we went on: Eusebio, Bobby Charlton, Beckenbauer, for about four hours.'

'Or stopping for a beer in a cantina in a village in the Yukatan a decade ago,' he added. 'These Mayan Indians asked me three questions. The first was Where are you from? The second was How do you like Mexico? And then came the third, Why is Gary Lineker playing for Barcelona reserves? From then, despite my pidgin Spanish, we could have a meeting of minds.'

'But the US has qualified for France,' I said. 'Americans will follow them.'

'Only if they do well,' he said. 'And most will only be interested in the results.'

'You mean results don't matter?' I asked.

'Of course they do,' he intoned fiercely. 'I want Scotland to win. But I know we're 40-to-one and Brazil are five-to-one for the championship. And on July 12, whoever reaches the final, the whole world will be watching television - except America.'

'Does it matter that much? I mean it's not a matter of life and death,' I ventured.

'No,' said Alistair. 'In the words of Bill Shankly, it's more important than that.'

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