What a draw! In the coastal town of Costa do Sauipe a plethora of former World cup stars including Sir Geoff Hurst, Zinedine Zidane, Cafu and Fabio Cannavaro didn’t disappoint, serving up some mouth-watering ties. Accompanying Italy-England (a game which will split my own household), there will be a re-run of the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland, another clash of the European titans between Germany and Portugal as well as a number of other intriguing ties.
With the groups now drawn, the World Cup is edging ever closer and the reality of football’s most prestigious tournament returning to Brazil brings an excitement to many a football fan matched only by a toddler on Christmas Eve. However behind every reality there are often unpalatable truths.
FIFA have not covered themselves in glory recently but that is hardly surprising anymore. The Guardian’s revelations about Qatar, where dozens of Nepalese workers have died this summer in conditions akin to “modern slavery” have led to diatribes being launched at FIFA from all quarters. As delighted as we were to see the case of Zahir Belounis resolved, his battle is just a fraction of the overall story. Sepp Blatter has claimed the world cannot “turn a blind eye” to the deaths of construction workers yet thousands who migrate to the Arab state for work are brutally exploited and are trapped by the country’s oppressive Kafala employment system. Brazil however is a different beast.
Much of the talk has been centred on Brazil’s struggle to meet construction deadlines, an issue compounded by the tragic death of two Brazilian workers when a crane fell and destroyed parts of Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians Stadium (the third accident involving fatalities). But while it is likely Brazil’s organisers will stumble over the line in terms of preparation, there is a more pressing issue which must not be glazed over by yesterday’s glitzy draw. FIFA’s insouciant disregard for the expenses of the World Cup has seen Brazil plunged into social and political turmoil.
For the romantic, Brazil is a worthy venue for the World Cup. The country whose history is synonymous with footballing success appeared the ideal candidate. Brazil has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and it was thought a mega sporting event could accelerate social and economic development as well modernise its image in global society. So surely the people of this football mad nation are delighted to have the World Cup. Not quite.
Fundamentally this is due to the tournaments expenses. It is estimated that the Brazilian government will spend over £2 billion on stadiums alone and the overall costs could exceed £9 billion. A vast majority of this money is said to be coming from public expenditure. So while Brazil’s education and health services are deplorable and millions struggle to get by, the government are accused of being more concerned with preparing for the World Cup. In truth there still remains gross inequalities within Brazil and this melting pot of social problems came to a head during this year’s Confederations Cup in June. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in protest rallies which were sparked by a rise in bus fares. This malcontent soon grew to include a number of social issues and these concerns were mirrored by the former Brazilian striker Romario.
Once a World cup winner and now a Socialist Party politician, Romario has launched a stinging attack on government expenditure. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday he stated:
“Our hospitals and schools are underfunded and there are huge social divisions, yet we are wasting billions of pounds of public money on mega-events starting with the World Cup”
Romario also lambasted his government’s relationship with FIFA:
“Our government should have recognised that the country should have given priority to health and education. The government should not have complied with the diktats of FIFA on stadiums, for example”.
With teachers striking and thousands protesting the Brazilian police have resorted to the use of brutal tactics to quell unrest. When Brazil faced Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup on the 30th June, the streets outside the Maracana witnessed a face off between irate crowds and an uncompromising police force equipped with riot gear and the air choked with tear gas. Brazilian journalist and campaigner Afonso Morais has stated he expects demonstrations like this to flare up again during the World Cup next summer. Morais also claims much of the population’s anger is down to ex-president Lula da Silva and former head of the Brazilian FA Ricardo Teixeira, a man now disgraced and in the midst of tax and bribery scandals. Both had promised that the majority of the expenses would come from private funders. In reality this was a lie.
FIFA stands to make a staggering $4 Billion from the World Cup yet with the very real possibility of the event being marred by political protests there have been whisperings of regret. Speaking at the start of a two-day conference on sports, media and economy in Austria, Sepp Blatter commented on the political protests in the Confederations Cup:
“If this happens again we have to question whether we made the wrong decision awarding the hosting rights,”.
However he was quick to shirk responsibility and relinquish any blame that might be placed on FIFA.
“It’s not we who have to learn lessons from the protests in Brazil – politics in Brazil have to do that, FIFA cannot be held responsible.”
Furthermore FIFA have tried to assuage public discontent by stating that according to official Brazilian government data, public expenditure on both the World Cup and the Olympics amass to only 0.15 percent of Brazilian GDP from 2007 to 2016. Nonetheless the sceptics still remain. Romario’s final comments in his interview were to the point “The World Cup will not leave the legacy it should”. But again, apparently this is not FIFA’s problem. In an ESPN article by Tim Vickery (BBC’s South American correspondent) I read comments made by FIFA’s general secretary Jérôme Valcke. “One thing is the World Cup and another thing is the legacy, which is not the responsibility of FIFA”. So if the political protests which have arisen as a result of expenditure on the World Cup aren’t their responsibility, and the legacy (a key reason for nations hosting a World Cup) is also not their responsibility, then what is?
Unfortunately the World Cup in Brazil has, thus far, proved to be a poisoned chalice exemplified by a conflict of interest. FIFA’s primary concern obviously lies in ensuring Brazil host a successful World Cup , generates revenue and takes place without incident. The Brazilian government is keen to showcase their development and create a legacy which will guarantee a prosperous future (although with the ongoing stadium saga they may be content with, quite simply, not cocking it up). And the Brazilian people, well of course they would love to enjoy this footballing fiesta but not at the expense of their quality of life.
On the one hand I am behind FIFA’s attempt to distribute hosting rights among developing countries. However with this in mind, once FIFA have awarded the World Cup they cannot simply wash their hands of any social or political fallout. I am no expert and at this point in time cannot offer any concrete solutions. But let’s not make this mistake again and again. Indeed Qatar is evidence that FIFA have just done that, not least because they seem to have forgotten a Qatari summer is…. HOT!
There aren’t may who are privy to FIFA’s deliberations but it seems that football’s international body must be more meticulous when exploring the ramifications for a nation’s bid. That said out of this maelstrom comes a glimmer of hope. Mega sporting events such as the World Cup bring global attention to social inequities about which we are often profoundly naïve. One can only hope they will not be suffocated by FIFA’s bland utterances.