Once again it is time for soccer’s World Cup. This time, the event is in Brazil, where fútbol is of the utmost importance. From June 12 to July 13, worldwide attention will be focused on the 32 national teams that will battle for the most coveted sports trophy on the planet. In addition to those watching in the stadiums, the television audience will be the largest ever for any event, augmented by millions watching on smart phones, computers, tablets and on the giant screens and cinemas world wide.
A phenomenon of this magnitude doesn’t come about overnight. The International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) chooses the host country years in advance, passing through several selective filters along the way. For example, the decision to hold future competitions in Russia (2018) and in Qatar (2022) was made in January 2009, and this year’s Cup host was chosen in October 2007. As in the Olympics, the competition among the candidate countries is intense, and each promises to have the requisite sporting facilities and infrastructure in place. The winner will spend a fortune, anticipating revenues from tourism, investment and prestige.
With such extensive requirements and the possibility of realizing wildly profitable revenues from admissions, tourism and—following the American model—TV rights and corporate sponsoring, the competition for becoming the host country is equal to, or greater than, the one on the field for the Cup itself. This inevitably generates a strong political component, with the intervention of the involved countries’ governments and intense lobbying inside FIFA among the delegates from those countries.
Thus, just as with the Olympic Games and other billion-dollar sporting events around the globe, all this can lead to corrupt efforts to become the host of the Cup. Perhaps this explains why Qatar, with little soccer tradition, was chosen as the host in 2022—above less wealthy countries that have been seeking the Cup for decades—and why fewer and fewer countries have the means to host the event. This corruption also invites fixing of the matches, gambling and other illegal or political machinations.
But money and interest rule, and FIFA is the only international organization with a budget greater than the individual G.D.P. of the majority of its affiliated countries, and it is accountable to no one. FIFA negotiates the multimillion-dollar television and sponsorship rights of the Cup and approves those of the principal international and regional tournaments that are now televised worldwide. No other such powerful entity exists.
Soccer is the most popular sport on the planet, and has raised passions among the faithful for more than a century. The first World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930 because they were Olympic champions in 1924 (Paris) and 1928 (Amsterdam). In Italy in 1934, Mussolini ordered that the Italian team must be champions, threatening to execute the players if they were not successful—similar to what took place in France in 1938, when they gave the Nazi salute in the final and many countries did not attend in protest, given the political situation at the time. In Argentina in 1978 the military junta used the event to mitigate its disparagement by the rest of the world. It is said they paid the Peruvian team to lose by an almost incredible five goals, allowing the Argentines to advance to the final and win the Cup.
Other countries use the general euphoria and distraction during the competition as a means of taking the people’s minds off government abuse. For example, in Mexico the Congress would work on controversial laws during the Cup to avoid scrutiny and possible protests from citizens. Presently, in Brazil, things are not going the way the government would like, and the populace has been protesting and demonstrating against the Cup in recent months. Brazil was awarded the Cup when its economy was buoyant and, together with China, India and Russia, it had formed the new economic bloc referred to by experts as BRIC, but the economic situation changed three years ago.
The enormous expenditures on facilities, new stadiums and infrastructure by the government of the once-popular Dilma Ruosseff have been excessive and questionable in the minds of Brazilians, while the high rates of poverty and inequality have turned the economy sour. To make matters worse, the new stadiums are not finished and there have been accidents that slowed the work. Security and repression have intensified along with the protests.
But the worldwide euphoria about the World Cup continues unabated. Just as in South Africa four years ago, ticket prices have skyrocketed and once again Mexicans are leading in the request for tickets. “How can this be?” many are asking, when this same country has such high levels of poverty and inequality, and such low salaries. The answer appears to come from the many Mexicans living in the United States, as well as some mega-rich Mexicans who can afford the price of tickets.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to the Light. The original Spanish version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.