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The Price of Hosting the World Cup

By Marya Pasciuto

In 2007, Brazil was delighted and honored to be chosen as the host nation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Enjoying rapid economic growth and a dazzling record win in World Cups past, Brazil was poised to establish itself as a major global economic power in 2014. Unfortunately, rampant spending and countless missed deadlines in recent years have left citizens outraged and the government scrambling to finish preparations, even in the weeks leading up to the Cup.

This fall from grace is distressing, but the financial and social struggles currently making headlines are reminiscent of the last World Cup. In light of recent events in Brazil and those in 2010 in host-nation South Africa, one must consider the fact that, for countries with developing economies, hosting major international events such as the World Cup can inflict serious economic and social harm.

Brazil’s World Cup woes arguably began even before it was chosen as the 2014 host. FIFA’s bidding process costs millions of dollars and requires that competing nations promise lavish stadiums and hotels for FIFA officials. According to FIFA, this is money well invested; the organization argues that nations which host the famous tournament enjoy increased economic growth due to the tourist revenue as well as opportunities to host other sporting events in the new stadiums that the organization demands be built.

Most countries also take World Cup hosting as an impetus to infrastructure improvements such as roads, subway construction, and airport renovation—projects that have long-term benefits for the nation. Brazil’s response to the opportunity to host, however, has been to spend a record-breaking $11.5 billion while failing to complete most of the projects it initiates. At the end of May, football legend and member of the World Cup organizing committee Cristiano Ronaldo admitted that only 30 percent of the proposed projects will see completion, and officials are concerned that the country’s still largely outdated airports will be unable to handle the influx of visitors from abroad.

Even after they arrive, World Cup spectators may be underwhelmed with the games’ venues: an estimated $3.6 billion of taxpayer money has gone into the construction and renovation of massive stadiums, most of which were incomplete as of the end of May and are unlikely to see proper use after the 20th World Cup comes to a close.

A large portion of the Brazilian population is up in arms over the astronomical cost of preparing for the World Cup and the utter lack of progress achieved. Citizen protests have attracted international attention—it seems that despite their enthusiasm for football, Brazil's citizens have had enough of their government spending billions on a month-long tournament while their schools and hospitals suffer. Their countless demonstrations are likely to continue throughout the Cup.

Troubling strikes also have threatened Brazil in the weeks leading up to the Cup. In São Paulo, civil police have gone on strike over low pay. Bus workers also brought the city to its knees in late May when they abandoned their posts, surprising both commuters and officials by parking their buses (or leaving them in the streets) and closing down several terminals. If the government fails to address these professional strikes during the World Cup, the streets of São Paulo will be unsafe and impossible to navigate, harming visitors and citizens alike.

Brazil’s homeless populations have also protested, with thousands of displaced families setting up camp in a lot near the São Paulo stadium set to hold the Cup’s opening game. The camp, which the families have named 'The People's Cup,' will impede traffic to the games and serve as a reminder to tourists and locals alike of the suffering among Brazil's poor populations. Such widespread civil unrest is raising eyebrows worldwide as football fans across the globe, along with Brazilian officials, become increasingly concerned that the World Cup will fail to run as planned.

It is important to understand that the fiscal and logistical headaches, and the ensuing social consequences surrounding the World Cup, are not unique to Brazil. South Africa, another nation with developing economies, played host to FIFA in 2010 with similar results. While the tournament itself was successful, the nation, which had enjoyed steady economic growth before becoming a World Cup host, did not receive the economic boost that FIFA promised.

Far fewer tourists arrived than were expected, and economic growth actually slowed in South Africa during the month of the tournament. Wasteful spending abounded, as the country spent $1.48 billion on the construction of five new stadiums (and renovation of five existing ones), most of which are far too large for typical non-World Cup games. In response to South Africa’s misplaced fiscal priorities, thousands of disenfranchised citizens protested the Cup. Similar to Brazil and its ongoing struggle with its favelas, South Africa drew negative international attention by imposing mass evictions and displacing slum-dwellers who lived near the FIFA action.

Prior to pursuing prestige as World Cup hosts, both Brazil and South Africa appeared ready to step up and perform on the international stage. There’s no way to know for sure whether FIFA’s demands directly caused each nation’s ensuing economic downturns, or the pressures of hosting a truly massive event simply exposed existing fiscal turmoil. It is clear, however, that nations with developing economies do not receive the economic benefits that FIFA promises when they host the Cup. And often times, citizens suffer as their governments spend billions on what amounts to entertainment rather than on more tangible benefits. Rather than being a boon for developing countries, FIFA leaves such nations worse off both financially and socially.

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Marya Pasciuto is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Ben Tavener, Fernando Henrique C. de Oliveira, Blog do Planalto and Ben Tavener]

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