No sporting event is more popular than the World Cup, with almost half of humanity — more than 3.2 billion people – tuning in to some part of the month-long competition in Brazil. But long before nations compete on the field, they vie for the prestige of hosting the spectacle to crown the best team in what most of the world calls football and America calls soccer. While the 2014 tournament was originally hailed as a return to the game’s Mecca, controversies leading up to the event cast a cloud over the tournament: Corruption, protests and a rising death toll among construction workers initially pushed the players from the spotlight. The debates have revived a question as old as the event itself: Where should you play the world’s game?
The buildup to the 2014 World Cup was marred by local protests suggesting that Brazil’s $11.2 billion would have been better spent alleviating poverty or improving the country’s health-care and transit systems. Eight workers died during the construction of 12 stadiums, and Brazil’s soccer president resigned amid allegations of corruption. While the controversies faded as the games got underway, questions about future sites may prove even bigger. The 2018 World Cup in Russia could become a flashpoint like the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which took place amid concerns about graft and civil rights, and were followed by the standoff over the country’s actions in Ukraine. Then there are calls to strip Qatar of the 2022 tournament if a drumbeat of new corruption claims prove true. The U.K.’s Sunday Times newspaper says documents and e-mails show that more than $5 million in bribes was paid to help bring the World Cup to the tiny desert emirate, where summer temperatures reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 Celsius). Qatar denies the allegations. It plans to lavish $200 billion on air-conditioned stadiums and related infrastructure, and there are already reports of deaths and abuse of migrant workers. In an effort to quell the controversy, former U.S. federal prosecutor Michael Garcia is investigating claims of corruption in the awards of both the 2018 and 2022 contests on behalf of FIFA, the sport’s Zurich-based governing body. He’s expected to release his findings by the end of July.
Disputes over where to hold the World Cup have dogged the event since it was first played in 1930, when the selection of Uruguay resulted in only four European teams making the three-week trip for the tournament. Eight years later, Uruguay and Argentina boycotted the 1938 competition because it was given to Europe for the second straight time. FIFA experimented with a rotation around the various continents; now it will take bids only from those continents that haven’t hosted either of the last two tournaments. Despite claims by politicians, recent history shows there is little — if any — financial benefit to hosting the World Cup. South Africa, for example, recouped just a 10th of the money it spent on stadiums and infrastructure for the 2010 tournament, the first in Africa, though it provided a much-needed upgrade to the transportation system. Allegations about the award to Qatar, the first in the Middle East, began to surface soon after it beat competition from the U.S., Australia, South Korea and Japan in 2010. The tournament will probably be played in the winter instead of June to avoid the searing heat, upsetting the professional league schedules. Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, has admitted the choice of Qatar was “a mistake.” While Canada, Colombia, Mexico and the U.S. are considering making bids for the 2026 tournament, the U.S. doesn’t plan to submit an offer unless rules are changed to provide more transparency in the voting.
Spreading the World Cup around the globe drives the sport’s development, and FIFA’s Blatter says pushing into “new lands” creates an opportunity for countries to showcase their culture and traditions on an international stage. Critics of the selection process cite both institutional and philosophical problems. Some highlight the money-losing proposition for developing nations that might spend the funds in other ways. Others say the selection process is made a farce by corruption, a problem that taints many international sporting events, including the Olympics. While FIFA says it wants to root out the problems, it has done little so far. That may change now that corporate sponsors such as Sony and Adidas — which provided a total of $404 million to FIFA in 2013 — are pressing the soccer body to fully investigate the allegations about Qatar’s bid.
The Reference Shelf
- A Bloomberg View series “Financial Football: An Economic Guide to Brazil’s World Cup,” in which guest writers explain how their squad tells us something about national economies.
- Bloomberg Visual Data page of 2014 World Cup predictions and results, and a website for Bloomberg’s coverage of the tournament.
- “Brazil’s Dance With the Devil,” a 2014 book by Dave Zirin.
- A report on the impact of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and South Africa’s report about the 2010 tournament. A study by the accounting firm KPMG that includes an analysis of the 2010 event in South Africa and a Bloomberg News article about its legacy for Johannesburg commuters.
- John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight” on HBO, ranted about FIFA in a June 2014 broadcast.