The World Cup, and more specifically its international organizing body, FIFA, has come under immense scrutiny leading up to its 2014 iteration in Brazil. Most criticisms of the situation are aimed at the host country’s inability to provide adequate hospitals, schools, and shelter to its citizens while FIFA, a tax exempt non-profit organization that is expected to rake in $4 billion plunders what it can from its host nations. The tournament’s conclusion will see FIFA leave the host country with a projected $15 billion tab but with beautiful new stadiums that history has shown have little utility once the games have been completed. All this while the vast majority of Brazilians live in an underdeveloped nation where, according to Pew Research they cite their most pressing concerns are crime, government corruption, and healthcare.
I’ve seen City of God. I know how this ends, and it isn’t good.
Late night comedian John Oliver had an especially poignant if not sardonic (let’s just say I did reputably on the SATs) take on FIFA. I won’t rehash any more of it, but in the end he remarks that he will still watch the games because ultimately he is passionate about the product/sport. Like a drug dealer that knows he’s got the best product around, FIFA essentially has free reign to charge whatever it wants to obtain the largest profit (see: Qatar). It can make ridiculous demands as countries bid for the prestige and exclusivity that comes with being a World Cup host. That irony isn’t lost on me, in which citizens protesting this “coveted” honor have their elected government sending out its own soldiers to protect, well not the nation’s but someone’s interest.
I am not a huge soccer fan but I will watch some of the World Cup. I image that there are a lot of people that aren’t happy with how FIFA conducts its business but will keep their eyes glued to the TV regardless. After all, it is the most widely viewed sporting event in the world by a large margin so this is the biggest game out there in terms of advertising revenue. I fear that if the Philadelphia Phillies were found to be using sweat shop labor to make their frog lawn accessories I still don’t think I could let myself root for another team—some sacrifices are non-negotiable. But why is this and what is the conscientious sports fan to do? Should I swear not to purchase any products I see advertised during the World Cup for a year? Or should it be two? Maybe I should just agree to only buy the competitor’s products (hello RC Cola, Powerade and Hydrox!) for a time. If I truly wanted to stay away from companies that promote suffering in the world be it directly or indirectly, I’d be a) spending a lot of time doing research and b) lead a much more bland lifestyle. If I don’t wish to separate myself from all companies that promote harm, at what point do I say, “I’m okay with the level of public harm that is caused by Target, but I won’t dare touch any Nike products”?
What John Oliver doesn’t quite approach but hints at during his monologue is a real problem for those who wish to promote the greater good. For many people to watch the World Cup and turn a blind eye is as easy as can be. For some, like the Danish reporter who got paid to be in Brazil to cover the tournament, he could no longer cover the sport while stomaching the idea of the destruction that FIFA and the government are causing to line the pockets of the few. FIFA is a prime example of a dilemma presented to the public in which an entity that controls a popular and addictive product could be performing a net disservice to the world. Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, has become the corrupt, sycophantic face of much of the ire. There have been calls on him to not seek re-election as FIFA President, but Sepp, being the consummate professional, has no plans to step down or cease his attempt at being elected for a 5th term. And why should he? FIFA has been widely criticized for its vast—and quite honestly, impressive—displays of alleged corruption for years but people keep coming back in record numbers to watch the sport they love. Changing heads of this often-called mob-run organization will do little to change its destructive ways. If anything, FIFA will find less overt ways to extract money and resources from nations, and perhaps they will skim a little less of the top, but no doubt they will still leave poor nations worse off than before they arrived. This will subdue calls for the abolition of FIFA for a long enough time until people forget about the destruction in their wake.
Of course FIFA is not the only party at fault, as politicians from the host country use the initial World Cup excitement as a platform on which to seek re-election or push through less than popular agendas. For countries like South Africa and Brazil (and perhaps Qatar in 2022), being awarded the World Cup is a signal to the rest of the world that your country is an official player in geopolitics. Never mind the crumbling infrastructure, protests, and mass strikes, Brazil as a part of the BRIC economies was on its way to playing with the big boys as far as world leaders believe, but now, almost as importantly, it is cemented in the minds of the international public too.
How can I criticize these entities’ clear apathy towards the treatment of the poorer citizens of their host country, even find ways to profit off of it, yet participate in the excitement and pageantry that this spectacle has become? Justifying watching the games at a bar is just one way. Telling myself that I’m not tuning in on my own TV and ratings companies have no way of tracking that I am indeed contributing as one out of those hundreds of millions of viewers. That doesn’t sound so bad actually. I could also justify that not wearing a few pieces of Nike clothing won’t shut the sweatshop down so it couldn’t be all that bad. If everyone thought this way then of course activism wouldn’t accomplish much and corporate interests would consistently triumph.
Being aware of a cause, although perhaps not actively engaging in protests, writing letters to politicians, or boycotting their sources of funds holds value as well. As Malcolm Gladwell outlined in The Tipping Point, prior to blood doping becoming popular among bicyclists at the turn of the century, there was a time when many honest riders held off on cheating until they believed that they were no longer in the majority of being a clean athlete, or that they felt their chances of winning were too compromised not to cheat. This point from inaction to action (aptly termed the tipping point) can send a shockwave through a movement and can facilitate its growth exponentially. In his example, when the tipping point for doping was reached, a large number of bicyclists suddenly began to dope even though they were initially morally against or ambiguous towards it. There are personal decisions that I can make to try to speed up this point of no return for causes, but being preachy or a wet blanket at jovial events isn’t really as fun as it sounds. Oh I see you’re drinking a cold, refreshing Coke. Did you know Coke is alleged to be involved in murder and torture of union-affiliated employees over the past several decades in Guatemalan and Colombian bottling plants? See, moralizing kinda sucks for everyone involved. On the flip side, going to bed without a roof over your head and with an empty stomach in a dangerous favela also seems pretty sucky.
Perhaps the salt in the wound for the poor and those that take advantage of the public works is that soccer is their game. One of the biggest reasons that soccer is so prevalent throughout the world is because a ball can be easily stitched together with all kinds of materials, it can be played nearly on any type of ground surface, and it is a fundamentally simple sport to pick up and play with virtually no learning curve. This is not ice hockey that FIFA is “forcing” countries to take on massive amounts of debt and build stadiums for. They aren’t erecting coliseums for polo. Soccer is their game that is getting marketed, re-branded, and sold back to the people for an exorbitant cost. It would somehow be more appropriate if FIFA was displaying games that didn’t interest the very people it screws.
Even in a country like the U.S. that has many adequate facilities already in place to be able to support a large, multi-city “mega-event” such as the World Cup, it doesn’t necessarily make economic sense to become a host. According to economics professor Dr. Dennis Coates in World Cup Economics, on whether the U.S. should seek the World Cup in 2022:
“A study of the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States found substantial lost output, with the final result showing that the pre-World Cup predictions were up to $13 billion off-target. The existing evidence of negative economic impact from other World Cups, combined with the self-interested motivation of the Bid Committee members and the lack of disclosure of the economic impact study all point to the conclusion that the US taxpayers are better off saying no to an expensive and secretive World Cup bid.”
This dilemma has no easy solution. The name of the game is deciding how much time/effort/money to put towards some causes while justifying to yourself that you don’t have enough time/effort/money to put into other causes. Do you go for the bigger national or international causes because they can help more people, or do you support the smaller or local ones because your contribution can have a greater impact? It’s a balancing act that I haven’t even come close to mastering. Perhaps you’d enjoy stretching yourself thin and just support every cause you believe in, while noble, that route isn’t for everybody. Even if boycotting the World Cup was shown to effectively change FIFA policies how many people have the will power to do so? When sympathizing with those being taken advantage of, it’s a tough decision that often gets overlooked. Everyone has that point that no matter how much you love a team or a product, when the company behind the brand does things that outweigh your personal satisfaction with that product, action needs to be taken. How thoroughly do we really want to investigate companies whose products we utilize? For soccer fans like Oliver it’s a cut and dry decision to watch the games, but more needs to be discussed about the struggle to find your own tipping point.