When the FIFA World Cup opened in Sao Paulo, the eyes of the world were glued to the action on the field – but recent developments off the pitch stole the spotlight. From the news of strikes and protests coming out of Brazil to the shadiness surrounding the awarding of the 2022 Cup to Qatar, it’s difficult to keep all of the scandals straight.
The Other World Cup Story – The Brazil Protests and FIFA’s Future
When Brazil and Croatia kickedoff, the eyes of the world will be on the host nation for the world’s most watched sporting event. The events outside the stadium, however, could be just as closely watched and the implications could be further reaching.
As anyone who has spent any time on the Internet recently now knows, Brazil spent about $14 billion to host the World Cup. This spending at the cost of investment in human services has led to the widespread protests and strikes that have impacted Brazil for years. Now, with the “eyes of the world” on the country, they take on an even greater importance as the inconvenience moves beyond just Brazilians.
We saw how the world and soccer fans reacted to these protests during the Confederations Cup, but that was a small tournament compared to the attention the World Cup receives, and over the next few weeks a narrative of the events both inside and outside the stadium will be written. How that narrative is written could determine the fate of the World Cup and Brazil itself. And this is not hyperbole.
The truth is that Americans fail to truly understand events happening outside of the country until they affect us directly. We have no sense of wider world issues until it affects us Americans.
The World Cup is exactly the right kind of event to introduce the public to a geopolitical issue. ESPN will undoubtedly spend time showing footage of the protests in-between match analysis because we saw them do exactly that in the Confederations Cup. Increase the audience, focus coverage on the issue, and suddenly a large chunk of the populations begins to discuss what they saw on television the night before. The U.S. plays on a poor pitch that billions were spent to construct, or their bus is delayed because of protests and traffic in the streets. Suddenly we care about what is going on outside the stadiums, and we buy in.
This is not an academic exercise. Already, the Belgium-U.S. closed door friendly was cancelled Wednesday due to massive traffic jams between the hotels and stadiums. A transit worker strike had shut down public transportation, leaving people to drive everywhere. In April, police staged a two-day strike and as a result crime spiked. When these incidents happen during the World Cup – and they will – a much larger audience will be paying attention and it will impact the team they care about.
For the fans already into the World Cup, these are probably not new issues. But what about those people who know soccer only through conversations at work or because they saw the most recent John Oliver rant via Facebook? For them this will be new and will shape their perception of the game maybe even more so than what will occur on the pitch.
Will these casual fans tune in to watch the World Cup after hearing these stories? Possibly, and this may gain the sport a few more fans. But I’d argue not likely, at least in the United States. Instead, this will feed into many people’s perceptions of professional soccer as un-American and corrupt, just like the IOC and other large non-U.S. based organizations.
In the long run, these protests could hurt soccer in the United States by slowing or even temporarily stunting its growth in popularity. Why would someone who is ambivalent about soccer in the first place now want to support an organization that forces countries to deprive its citizens of basic human rights?
For FIFA, this is a nightmare. The Qatar World Cup is eight years away, potentially plenty of time for those controversies to be managed. Russia’s problems are unknown. But Brazil’s are here now, and as the stories become mainstream of exactly what FIFA demanded and what they are not paying for, the pressure will continue to build for change. Not from the federations themselves, because of their dependence on FIFA, but from the sponsors.
Already Adidas, Coca-Cola, and Anheuser-Busch are putting heat on FIFA for the horrible stories coming out of Qatar and if pressure grows on FIFA and the Brazilian government to address the needs of these protesters, the sponsor will be just as quick to either distance themselves from the organization or quietly force change behind closed doors. We could see major changes to how the World Cup is funded and organized simply because the sponsors do not want to be viewed by millions of people worldwide as in-bed with Sepp Blatter or the police officers shooting tear gas.
For Brazil the impact is obvious despite an ongoing charm offensive. This tournament was supposed to be their return to glory, a possible World Cup trophy won on their own soil. That could still be the narrative, but it could just as easily turn into one of choosing FIFA over its own citizens.
The impact, especially if the protests are handled poorly, could reverberate into a social movement that could change the government during the next election. Interestingly, there is an argument that can be made that the economy during the stadium construction is improving, but such an argument would be overshadowed by images of a million protesters marching or a civil service strike as people travel to matches.
The protests and strikes that occured in Brazil during the World Cup changed soccer and the host country. How much, how violently, and how long-term depend on the smart and humane responses of the Brazilian government and FIFA. Regardless, the world is a better place for the World Cup being in Brazil to highlight the tough debates on how much we should spend on sports versus other societal needs.
Brazilians are really, really mad
Over the course of the past few years, Brazilians have grown outraged at the government’s handling of the World Cup. Even in this soccer-obsessed country, people are deeply resentful of the government’s decision to spend as much as $14 billion on the Cup while millions of its citizens lack basic services – services the government promised to improve ahead of the Cup.
On top of that, at least nine workers have been killed in accidents related to rushed World Cup construction projects; activists are alleging that more than 250,000 people faced eviction threats to accommodate Cup construction and preparations; and the presence of brand-new Cup buildings has raised rent in working-class neighborhoods, pricing longtime residents out.
The streets of Brazil’s major cities have become chaotic battle zones. Tens of thousands, from the homeless to workers, have poured into the streets over the past few months to protest the government’s handling of the Cup and riot police have responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.
A series of strikes by public-sector workers demanding higher wages has paralyzed Brazil’s largest cities, bringing yet more protesters and police into the streets. Subway workers are the latest to strike, inspired by previously successful efforts by bus drivers and federal police, who threatened to strike.
Bribery, corruption, and worker abuse have reached a boiling point in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host
The world was shocked when Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010. Of course, there’s the weather: the Persian Gulf state suffers temperatures well north of 100 degrees – sometimes over 120 – in the World Cup months of June and July. And there’s the fact that the tiny, oil-rich nation has little soccer history or presence on the sport’s international stage: It’s never sent a team to the Cup to compete.
Turns out, there may have been more suspicious factors behind FIFA’s bizarre decision. The British press have alleged that Qatari billionaire Mohamed bin Hammam paid off FIFA officials in order to secure their votes to bring the Cup to his country.
Emails obtained by the Sunday Times suggest that Qatar and 2018 World Cup host Russia cooperated to help each other win bids, and that bin Hammam used his connections in business and government to bribe officials from Thailand to Germany.
If the allegations are true, FIFA Vice President Jim Boyce said he’d push to strip Qatar of the Cup and re-award it to another country.
Another worry, especially for fans, is the cultural conservatism of Qatar. Gay fans have expressed concern about visiting the country, where homosexuality is illegal, and foreigners have been whipped and deported for violation. In 2010, FIFA President Sepp Blatter made headlines by suggesting that gays “should refrain from sexual activity” if they visit Qatar. He quickly apologized.
What could push all this to critical mass is ongoing outrage over Qatar’s mistreatment of the construction workers tasked with building Cup infrastructure. The long hours of hard labor in unbearably hot conditions have proven lethal: It’s estimated that 1,200 workers have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the Cup. They are almost exclusively migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia and can only leave Qatar with the written permission of their employers – a system some watchers have compared to slavery.
Five of the World Cup’s six top corporate sponsors (including Coca-Cola and Adidas) have voiced concern over corruption and worker abuse allegations, and publicly back formal investigations. Blatter, in a rare off-message moment, admitted that giving Qatar the bid was a “mistake.” Qatari officials have denied wrongdoing on corruption charges and promised to reform labor laws – but clearly, they have a lot more to worry about than air-conditioning their stadiums.
BBC Panorama Exposes Poverty Of World Cup Host
BBC’s Panorama news program debuted a new episode entitled “Brazil – In The Shadow Of Stadiums”, which examines the rampant prostitution and poverty that exists within view of the World Cup stadiums. It’s no wonder there’s a growing anger at Brazil for pouring billions of its money and resources into hosting the World Cup while the money could be better spent on the people, services and infrastructure of the country.
According to the program description, “Next week, the ‘beautiful game’ is coming home. Brazil, the most successful nation in football history, is hosting the 2014 World Cup. But the build-up has been overshadowed by violent protests against the spiraling cost of staging the tournament. In a country where a quarter of the population live in extreme poverty, there’s widespread anger at what’s perceived as the increasing divide between the rich and poor.
“The multi-million pound new stadiums sit alongside an epidemic of drug addiction and child prostitution. Tonight Panorama reveals the shame of a country where children as young as 12 sell their bodies for the price of a soft drink, where drug cartels control whole swathes of city centers and where the poor are feeling more dispossessed than ever before.”