World Cup Bribe? The Hoax That Brought the World Cup to Germany

Who says the Germans don't have a sense of humor? Five months before they host the World Cup, the editor of satirical magazine Titanic is reminding his countryfolk that it was he who brought the tournament to the Fatherland with a hoax bribe of a few sausages and a cuckoo clock.

The claim seems far-fetched, but it has credibility. In July 2000, on the eve of the key vote by the FIFA world football federation on the venue of the 2006 World Cup, Martin Sonneborn and his staff at the German satirical magazine Titanic decided to play a prank to liven the proceedings up. Now, he is reminding his fellow Germans that the magazine can be thanked for bringing the World Cup to Germany.  

"We thought that the way things were going we would never get the World Cup to Germany so I had the idea of sending off a few bribery faxes," said Sonneborn, who has written a book about the affair bearing the proud title "I Did It For My Country."

The faxes, sent to seven FIFA committee members at a luxury Zurich hotel, offered them "a fine basket with specialities from the black forest, including some really good sausages, ham and –- hold on to your seat –- a wonderful KuKuClock! And a beer mug, too? Do we leave you any choice???" All they had to do was vote for Germany.

Conspiratorial and secretive

The letter was signed by Sonneborn as "Secretary TDES (WM 2006 initiative)". The recipients could be forgiven for failing to recognise TDES as the German acronmyn for "Titanic, the Ultimate Satirical Magazine"

"I rang the hotel and told the lady on reception it was important and asked her to pass the faxes on to the delegates before the vote the next day. And because it was the most expensive hotel in Zurich she folded the faxes, put them in envelopes and pushed them under the doors of the FIFA committee members. It gave it all a more conspiratorial, secretive air," said Sonneborn.

Whether it was the hoax bribe that prompted New Zealander Jack Dempsey, 78, the delegate of the Oceania Football Confederation, to abstain from the vote in exasperation at the pressure being put on him has never been established beyond doubt. But his statements after the vote indicate that Sonneborn's fax had an impact.

Dempsey's abstention enabled Germany to beat South Africa 12-11 in the final vote. Had he voted for South Africa as his federation had mandated him to do, the candidates would have been tied, giving FIFA President Sepp Blatter –- a supporter of awarding the 2006 World Cup to Africa -- a deciding vote to break the deadlock. South Africa would have clinched it.

"This final fax broke my neck," Dempsey was quoted as telling reporters. During a stopover in Singapore en route back to New Zealand, he told one reporter: "I chose to abstain because of the intolerable pressure that was put on me by all. Not by the actual bidding people, but the people on the fringe and incessant phone calls that I was receiving in my room, and also the attempts to bribe me."

Irate tabloid readers

At the time, news of Titanic's fax campaign whipped up an international media storm with reports of foul play souring Germany's celebrations. At one point FIFA even considered repeating the vote. Sonneborn, faced with the threat of a €300 million damage claim from the DFB football federation, had to swear he would never again try to influence a FIFA decision. "It wasn't a huge sacrifice given that we probably won't get another shot at hosting the World Cup until 2086," said Sonneborn. "Besides, once a good joke has worked, it's best not to repeat it."

Tabloid Bild Zeitung launched a campaign against Sonneborn and published Titanic's office phone number. "As a result we were subjected to a nine hour torrent of phone abuse from irate Bild readers," said Sonneborn. "It was the funniest thing I ever heard." Callers accused him of being a "traitor to the Fatherland" and demanded that he be put to death in a variety of ways ranging from electrocution to being fed to lions in South Africa.

"I'm still waiting for a medal," said Sonneborn. Only Rudi Völler, the German national soccer team's coach at the time, saw the funny side and thanked "the boys at Titanic for bringing the World Cup to Germany."

Titanic is no stranger to pranks and went as far as forming its own political party in 2004 dedicated to dividing east from west Germany. Among its demands during the 2005 general election campaign was that the city of Dresden's historic Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady), a jewel of baroque architecture opened last year after being painstakingly rebuilt from the rubble of World War Two, be dismantled and its stones used to erect a new Berlin Wall.

One of its most famous editions, published shortly after the fall of the Wall, poked fun at the eastern Germans who had been starved of fruit under communism. It showed a spotty eastern teenager happily clutching a peeled cucumber and saying "My first banana."

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