After two years of qualifiers, an overly dramatic draw, much consternation at how that draw turned out, endless speculation about how each country will over, under, or perfectly perform — and a year of massive protests — the 2014 World Cup Finals will officially begin this afternoon. The ball will drop in the middle of the (hopefully, finally completed) Arena de São Paulo, and Brazil and Croatia will touch off a month of soccer celebrations across the globe.
The World Cup is a wonderful spectacle. It is the world’s most popular sporting event, the Super Bowl on steroids: according to media analysts, more than 700 million people worldwide tuned in to watch the final between Spain and The Netherlands in 2010. It links, in some way or another, the kids on the fields of Porto Alegre and those in the poshest academies of Paris. It ties together, one way or another, people who play soccer — or football or futebol or calcio or whatever it is you call it — from the Solomon Islands to Spain. The World Cup is powerful enough — or at least the sport of soccer is — that it helps halt civil wars in countries like Ivory Coast and fosters working relationships between soccer federations in geopolitical foes like the United States and Iran (there’s even an American on Iran’s World Cup roster).
The Brazilian World Cup was supposed to be the ultimate celebration of the event’s greatness. Brazil did not give us soccer, but Brazilians perfected it. So when FIFA announced in 2007 that the Cup would return to the sport’s cradle for the first time since 1950, Brazilians celebrated in the streets and the world cheered alongside them.
Six years later, as the Confederations Cup, a World Cup tune-up, commenced, Brazilians were back in the streets in even bigger numbers. The national team won that tournament in a dazzling, awe-inspiring display, drubbing defending World Cup champions Spain. But the Brazilian people were not celebrating. They were protesting. And they have continued protesting since, right up until the tournament’s opening day.
They have protested the absurd cost of hosting this event — Brazil has spent an estimated $11.5 billion on World Cup-related projects, though the government stresses that much of this is on long-term infrastructure. They have protested that massive amounts of money were going to stadiums — some of them needed but others, in places like Manaus, Cuiaba, and Brasilia, that will be white elephants after as few as four matches — instead of toward schools, hospitals, water infrastructure, and other projects that never seem to meet “FIFA standard.” They have protested government-backed relocation of poor families from their homes, some of them to make way for Cup-related projects. They have protested the government policy of pacification, aimed at making some of Brazil’s cities more palatable to tourists. They have protested police brutality and impunity that has been rampant during those protests and that World Cup-related security policies may only make worse. The list goes on.
The problems have gotten so bad that even Brazilians aren’t even that excited about the World Cup. Forget excited. Brazilians are almost ashamed of it.
“There is certainly a mood of ‘we’ve already paid for the party so we might as well enjoy it,'” Juca Kfouri, a prominent Brazilian sports journalist, told the Associated Press this week. “But there is also the feeling that a lot of people are ashamed. They’re ashamed to wear the Brazil jersey or put a Brazilian flag in their window because of the protests, because they don’t want to be associated with the exorbitant spending on the Cup.”
In the weeks before this Cup begins, we — and FIFA — have also had to ponder the absurdity of the 2022 World Cup, which will supposedly take place in Qatar, which may or may not have “earned” the right to host the World Cup by paying off members of FIFA’s executive committee. FIFA has already drawn criticism for giving the Cup to a place where summer temperatures may endanger both players and fans; for giving it to country with an economic system predicated on what labor groups call “modern-day slavery“; for handing the Cup to a country in which some 4,000 migrant workers may die building stadiums and other projects.
If making Brazilians ashamed of their favorite sport and handing a World Cup to Qatar isn’t enough to make everyone realize how absurd all of this is, there is this: the world has virtually forgotten, at least temporarily, that the 2018 World Cup is headed to Russia, a country that was the focus of international scorn for corruption, its treatment of LGBT people, environmental activists, and journalists, and other human rights abuses ahead of the Winter Olympics it hosted earlier this year.
The World Cup has become so ruinous that it borders on ruining itself.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. None of the problems the World Cup has created, made worse, or highlighted in Brazil are necessary to hosting this tournament. None of the problems it has or will create in Russia, Qatar, or future hosts are either. We don’t need 12 shiny new stadiums that only remind us how hard we’re not working to improve the not-so-shiny schools and hospitals and favelas around it. We don’t have to perpetuate corruption, to abuse workers, to relocate families, to hand out special tax breaks, to pretend that these events drive massive economic growth when they don’t.
Drop a ball between two national teams in an adequately safe stadium and let them play, and the part of the World Cup that is fun will still exist. Sure, you’ll evaporate some profits for corporate sponsors and international contractors and even FIFA itself. But no one watches the World Cup to see corporate sponsors, international contractors, or FIFA. We can make these games more responsible, more sustainable, and less destructive, and the parts of the World Cup that are redeemable — the aspects of the World Cup that people actually like — will go on just fine. And we’ll have the benefit of actually collecting and recognizing the intangible benefits hosting, participating in, and winning the World Cup do provide.
And frankly, we have no choice but to make that happen, because that’s the only way to keep making it work. If we don’t, countries are going to start running away from it just like they have started to avoid the Olympics. Sports economist Stefan Szymanski, a critic of the notion that the World Cup is good for economies but a soccer fan still, worried this week that Brazil “might be the last World Cup as we know it,” as distrust between continental federations and problems of corruption and overspending and the world’s response to it leads to “a break-up which no one wants.”
Worse, as democratic countries become so worried about the ill effects of this event that they quit trying to host it altogether, we’re leaving those duties to countries like those that will host at least the next two. Those countries don’t have the checks and balances that domestic or international communities at least theoretically provide to countries like Brazil, and so we may be looking at the possibility that, without major changes, whether it’s the abolition of or massive reforms to FIFA, the World Cup will become even more ruinous than it already is.
That’d be an even bigger shame than Brazil already has been, because what happens on the field at the World Cup is truly a beautiful game. It’s everything that happens off the pitch — and the people and organizations that allow all of that to persist — that ruins the World Cup and so much around it.