This appeared in German on the Capital.de website yesterday
The sight of protesters in Brazil outside the Maracana stadium in which the national team is about to play a championship final is what Americans would call a “game changer”. FIFA President Sepp Blatter might stick his head in the sand and bleat “this is not our problem”, but it is time for the World governing body to reap what they have sown- and the harvest will be bitter.
Think back 7 years and the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup. Thanks to the inspired innovation of fanzones and giant screen technology Germany turned conventional wisdom on its head and welcomed hundreds of thousands of ticketless fans into festival of football that was fun. The whole world marveled at Germany’s unexpected capacity to let its hair down, and Germans basked in the success. The academics caviled about whether the event had generated an economic stimulus, but this argument barely mattered.
According to Wolfgang Maennig of the University of Hamburg about €1.4 billion was spent on upgrading stadiums, and about 60% of that was paid for by the clubs themselves. And the investment seems to have been well justified, with attendance at Bundesliga games rising by 20% above 2005 levels in the three years after the World Cup- further growth only seems constrained by capacity limits. If German taxpayers had to underwrite some of the costs of the happy summer of 2006, it was hardly extravagant by the standards of government expenditure.
If FIFA executives were probably as pleasantly surprised as most Germans by the outcome of 2006, then they must have thought that Brazil 2014 was a sure thing. The spiritual home of the game, the world’s ideal of a party destination, in a country where everyone, foreigner and national alike, turns a blind eye to economic realities, what could go wrong?
Some might say that FIFA has been unlucky- recession is a poor backdrop for a party, and the recession that follows a decade of unprecedented growth can induce a particularly painful hangover. Corrupt government doesn’t help. But FIFA have also brought this on themselves. They have embraced a policy of taking the World Cup away from the traditional venues, mainly in Europe, and want to extend the party to developing nations, albeit ones that are becoming players of the world economic stage- Brazil, Russia and Qatar.
Their biggest mistake has been to hold it consecutively in countries with GDP per capita of around $12,000 (Germany: $40,000). There are just so many people in genuine, life diminishing poverty in South Africa and Brazil, that holding a party in the middle of it seems callous. South Africa 2010 was deemed a success to the extent that many tourists went and the event passed off without serious incident. But the pictures of gleaming FIFA-ordained stadiums against the background of people living without running water and electricity has left a mark. The policy of clearing the favelas in Brazil, even if backed by a promise of better housing, looks as if the government is just trying to push the problems out of sight.
And that is FIFA’s fault. They auction the World Cup to the highest bidder, measured by football infrastructure investment, which is generally far greater than that which is needed. Rich European nations either have the capacity to use it or to pay for it, as do a few countries outside Europe (e.g. USA, Japan and South Korea) but most of the rest of the world does not.
FIFA is turning its back on Europe (and for these purposes Russia has more in common with Brazil than Germany). In some sense this is justified- Europe has dominated the staging of major world sporting events for too long, and the rest of the world deserves its turn. But to extend the rights to developing nations the rules will have to change, or the protests will continue.
It is possible to run a World Cup that is affordable even to relatively poor nations. The World Cup is an event primarily consumed on TV and the cameras are mostly focused on the pitch, so concrete colosseums are not necessary. Stadiums must be safe, but they do not need to be grand. Since this is where most of the public money is usually frittered away, dealing with this one issue would significantly change the perception of the event.
Maybe there will be a fewer tourist visitors- but in truth these add relatively little to the economics of hosting the World Cup (largely because the event usually deters nearly as many visitors as they attract). Or else the host nations could learn the lesson of Germany 2006 and build larger fanzones. After all, when you go to a great party, do you really notice the décor? The world cup is about atmosphere, not concrete.
FIFA has tried to move the World Cup to rest of the world while creating the illusion that infrastructure is as good as Europe’s. The protestors on the streets of Brazil are telling us what we should already know. Time for FIFA to deliver a real World Cup, not another Hollywood film set.