World (class) cup or world in (com)motion?

4th July 2014
As the World Cup finals kick-off in Brazil, and protests continue in the streets, Professor Peter Newell, (Director of the Centre for Global Political Economy, at the University of Sussex) examines the issues that have resulted in so much public anger.

Despite calls for calm, in a country with one of the worst rates of income inequality in the world and with many pressing social issues to address, it is understandable that people resent the massive expenditure of public funds (i.e their money) on new stadiums and infrastructure. A recent poll suggests that as many as 61% of the public feel that hosting the World Cup was a bad idea, because it diverts resources that could be better spent on public services such as healthcare.

If past experience is anything to go by, many of the stadiums built for the World Cup will not get used much afterwards. In South Africa many people are still waiting for promised housing, roads and access to water that were meant to be part and parcel of hosting new stadium projects for the World Cup held there in 2010.

What the protests point to is a growing gulf between the global managing elite of football and the working classes who by and large make up the core fan base in most clubs and countries around the world who are being out-priced and excluded from the beautiful game. To be sure, their loyalty to club and country is an attractive investment opportunity for the corporate sponsors who line up to use the World Cup to promote their products, or to wealthy families and shareholders who now run big name clubs for whom they offer a high-profile outlet for their vast wealth. But the love and loyalty shown by fans to their clubs and country is not reciprocated by affordable tickets to see their teams play. And as recent events in Qatar have made clear where a reserve army of cheap labour is being exploited in appalling conditions, football is just another business conducted at any cost. The flames of resentment have been further fanned by revelations, repeatedly brushed off and denied, of widespread corruption among FIFA officials charged with promoting football worldwide who have allegedly pocketed bribes to support bids to host the World Cup. The gulf between the (public) wealth they (privately) accumulate and the people whose passion they depend on to keep football alive, is sickeningly wide.

Would it be too much to ask that nations bidding for future World Cups have to prove that tickets will be affordable to the fans whose money ultimately pays for many of the infrastructural projects required to host a World Cup? Not just the stadiums of course, but the transport improvements, new hotels and costs of policing, to name just a few. Is it also beyond the realms of possibility for FIFA to make it a precondition that national governments screen contractors to ensure people employed to build the infrastructure and run the games are paid a minimum living wage?

If not, and for good reason, we will continue to see a world in (com)motion every time we have a World Cup.