As the World Cup continues to be transformed from football celebration to commercial juggernaut, ROB BROWN poses the question – have you had enough yet?
The World Cup Finals is a sporting spectacle like no other. The biggest and most historic feast of international football has, for generations, been a must-watch event for every fan. No other sporting competition boasts such a long list of globally iconic moments and each edition stands as an illustrative snapshot of football’s development.
Despite its unique history, however, the tournament’s time as a palatable diversion may be coming to a sad and exasperating close. As Jon Polito’s character in the Coen brothers’ 1990 film Miller’s Crossing is fond of saying: “It’s a question of ethics.”
While the World Cup remains a simple competition contested to determine the world’s strongest football nation, it is almost impossible to look at it and see nothing more than a meeting of the world’s best and brightest players and managers, nor a uniquely positive environment in which cultural borders between fans come tumbling down.
As with most of contemporary football, the World Cup is now less about sport or fan culture more about mass-marketing, brand expansion and belligerent, neoliberal and corrupt capitalism. This much is obvious but, while regrettable, not necessarily objectionable.
After all, the last two decades have seen faceless corporations and morally-questionable oligarchs appropriate the club game as their own, but by the same token their colossal investment has seen standards go through the roof and given us much for which to be grateful. There is an argument for the trade-off being worth it.
The World Cup is different, however. The financial elite leeching off of an historic and organic social movement and eventually turning it into their own corporatised plaything is one thing. Using football’s marquee event to actively destabilise and attack developing nations’ most vulnerable people in order to serve globally recognised businesses – all the while corruptly awarding tournaments to whichever representative committee can offer the biggest bribe – is another entirely. These are not practices we can support, whatever the positives.
I will miss watching the World Cup. For me like so many others, the World Cup Finals acted as an introduction to the beautiful game. Shorn of the tribal loyalties and cultural associations that can complicate club football for newcomers, the competition’s simple premise and digestible schedule make it extremely easy to follow, while its occurrence every four years lends it gravitas and mystique, also ensuring that each tournament is unique enough to be memorable in some way.
As such, almost everyone remembers their first World Cup with great affection. I was old enough to watch the 1994 Finals on television but not yet wise enough to understand them, so the first edition to capture both my attention and my heart was France 1998. In my mind – in which the tournament will live forever, whether I want it to or not – it will always exist as the most brilliantly entertaining month of exhilarating football, played by the game’s most iconic players and exclusively in beautiful sunshine.
I will always remember, for example, Croatia unexpectedly demolishing Germany in the quarter-finals and can even tell you who scored the goals and how; Ivan Zamorano passionately belting out the Chilean national anthem before the second round match against Brazil; Sunday Oliseh’s howitzer as Nigeria shocked Spain in the group stage. Lilian Thuram’s semi-final brace for France stands as my favourite football moment ever – the ultimate zero to hero story, and one of which Thuram, who claims to have entered a trance-like state, has no recollection.
Almost every moment of England’s inconsistent campaign under Glenn Hoddle is seared into my memory. They played some uncharacteristically progressive football, particularly against Colombia and Argentina, but also struggled to break down Tunisia and were humbled against a more dynamic and decisive Romania side – an outfit that provided my favourite goal of the tournament (Adrian Ilie’s scooped toe-poke versus Colombia) and one that later made headlines by collectively dying their hair peroxide blonde.
In the run-up to each tournament, this kind of meandering nostalgic thought has a habit of taking hold of most fans. It seems that almost everyone has their own personal library of obscure World Cup memories and the practice of sharing them and reminiscing together is one of the great gifts that football has given us. It is an essential part of preparing for what comes next, which we anticipate to be a kind of month-long football orgasm.
However, it is increasingly apparent with each passing edition that this is an unrealistic expectation. On a sporting level, it is readily accepted by most observers that the expansion of the World Cup Finals to include 32 teams has diluted the quality of football played, significantly reducing entertainment and detracting from its prestige. The incremental but unstoppable advance of European club football has transformed the view of the international game and of the World Cup in particular.
In our increasingly globalised world, the World Cup offers no allure of the unknown: no mythical superstar whose name has become sacred without visual evidence to support the hearsay; no graceful and adventurous continental libero whose skills shame England’s most creative winger; no way of playing that will transform our understanding like Rinus Michels’ totaalvoetbal or Brazil’s flair-soaked team of 1982.
Furthermore, the cost of making the trip to the host nation to attend games is now prohibitively expensive. According to ESPN, most fans journeying from the United States to South Africa in 2010 – probably those with the biggest purchasing power – were looking at spending around $10,000 each for the privilege. Prices for almost everything from flights and accommodation to inter-city travel had more than doubled for the World Cup.
So, in the absence of truly arresting football, emerging superstars and accessibility for the vast majority of would-be travelling supporters, it is tempting to ask what the World Cup is actually for nowadays. The answer is evident and depressing in equal measure: it is to make money, primarily for FIFA, but also for Adidas, Nike, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, VISA and so on and so forth. Their needs supersede everyone else’s to the point where anything goes if it increases their profit margin.
This not-so-subtle appropriation of the World Cup is becoming impossible to excuse. Sepp Blatter’s stated aim of bringing the global game to the developing world is laudable but to an increasing majority his words ring hollow, given the shameless reprehensibility of his actions. One must conclude that, for Blatter, football’s biggest tournament is less about the expansion of the sport than that of his bank balance.
We are all aware of the crimes committed by FIFA in recent years: of the award of Asian television rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to a tiny company owned by Blatter’s nephew; of the numerous allegations of solicited bribery made against Jack Warner and Mohamed bin Hammam; of other bribery scandals involving former FIFA premier João Havelange. Still we do nothing: we tune in and watch their product, passively enabling their dirty work.
Even more objectionable than the barely-concealed corruption at FIFA is the economic pillaging of host nations, especially those in the developing world. The most striking legacies in host countries such as South Africa, Brazil and Qatar in the years post-tournament are not going to be thriving grass-roots football communities, revitalised professional leagues and fans with memories of seeing Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andrés Iniesta.
They will be abandoned white-elephant stadia with unpayable maintenance costs and disenfranchised local populations who remember that the expected festival of football was actually a bizarre colonial party held freely on their turf.
The myths of economic benefits to host nations have been well and truly busted. According to Dennis Coates, Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, the 1994 World Cup was expected to generate a $4bn profit for the United States, a country perfectly set up to take advantage of such an event. It actually lost $9.6bn.
South Africa spent about $3bn building stadia and upgrading its infrastructure for the 2010 tournament. According to most reports, it barely made 10% of its money back. Brazil is spending around four times what South Africa did to stage the 2014 FIFA World Cup – figures vary from $11-12.5bn – and it faces an impossible struggle to make it into the black.
By contrast, FIFA spent about $1.2bn on South Africa 2010 and made $3.2bn back – a tax-free profit of $2bn. It has spent $4bn on Brazil 2014 and is expected to come out $1.78bn up on its investment. Figures of investments and profits are harder to find for FIFA’s corporate partners but given that their sponsorship secures monopolies in fan-parks and stadia throughout host nations, making anything but a huge profit is inconceivable.
Not only are monopolies secured in fan-parks and stadia, but in the streets, too. In South Africa, street vendors were required to apply for permits to sell their goods in ‘commercial restriction zones’ frequented by supporters. Johannes Mzimela, an ice cream salesman in Durban, told the BBC that municipal police were conducting “hostile raids” against vendors near stadiums, issuing fines, confiscating goods or throwing them in jail if they did not have the correct paperwork.
“We are being made to jump through hundreds of hoops so we can do for a month what we have been doing here for years – and that’s selling at the stadium,” said Nhanhla Mkhize, another ice cream seller. “Now I know it is just a reminder that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.”
Before the 2010 World Cup, the Guardian reported that thousands of the poorest South Africans were being evicted from their homes in order to clear cities for incoming tourists. They were placed in what the government defined as ‘temporary relocation areas’. Their residents say they are more like concentration camps, characterised by inhuman living conditions and police brutality. The biggest, Blikkiesdorp, is home to at least 15,000 people.
The same is happening throughout Brazilian cities now. In March 2014, military forces were called in to “take back” the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. While no-one wants the city’s infamous gang culture to ruin any tourist’s experience of the World Cup, there is a thin and blurry line between legitimately raising security to keep people safe and brazenly unleashing brute force against an innocent populace in order to protect the profits of the tournament’s sponsors.
In Qatar, migrants from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are building the emirate’s venues in preparation for the 2022 tournament. They live in conditions reminiscent of the darkest days of slavery. Working twelve hour shifts, they often go without food and drink, none being provided, and sleep in crowded hostel dormitories, twelve to a room. They rarely get paid.
The majority were conned into travelling to Qatar by unscrupulous agencies who promised an improvement in living standards and better wages than they could get at home. As if that was not bad enough, the agencies demanded payment in order to secure jobs and make travel arrangements. In many cases, passports were taken as collateral. Thus, the migrant workers are indebted and bound to their employers, unable return to their homelands and escape the horror.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation, at least 1,200 migrant workers have died in Qatar since their bid to host the tournament won in 2010. The projected death total exceeds 4,000.
Is this what the World Cup is really about? Of course not.
However, when FIFA and its corporate partners inevitably post record-breaking profits, they will decide that it was all worth it and continue on this trail. The only action we can take to help their victims – short of violent popular revolution, which may yet be a tad melodramatic – is through boycotting the World Cup.
Everyone remembers the first World Cup that they fell in love with, but we are entering an age when the crimes committed in the name of football are far too much to bear. I hope that Brazil 2014 is a tipping point – that popular resistance grows exponentially in its wake. With any luck, we as fans will stop asking each other which was our first World Cup and instead enquire, with heavy hearts, which was the last.
ROB BROWN – @robbro7