Duel: Is the World Cup a poisoned chalice?

Sol Campbell and Simon Kuper battle it out in the match of the century
May 21, 2014

Sol Campbell: To describe the World Cup as a “poisoned chalice” for the host nations is to ignore the fact that its value goes beyond the economic—it brings people and nations together. It’s also a fantastic platform from which to spread the message that racism and homophobia in sport are wrong. I’m not denying that it costs a huge amount of money to host the World Cup but Brazil currently has the seventh largest economy in the world, is rich in natural resources and has a population of over 198m people. It is a nation that loves football and has a strong tradition of excellence in the game; this event has forced them to upgrade their stadiums and ensure they maintain a world-class standard. It has also made it essential for the Brazilian government to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Brazil is supposed to be this new country coming out and showing the world how powerful they are. I believe that hosting the World Cup will, in the long term, be a huge benefit to Brazil’s economy and global status. If Fifa was scared of putting a strain on the economies of developing countries then the World Cup would only ever be held in mainland Europe, America, and possibly in certain parts of the Middle East and Asia. This is the World Cup—everyone competes and everyone has the opportunity to host it. It is important that countries such as Brazil have the opportunity to show what they can do on the world stage. Brazil’s spending could go over budget—the total cost is now forecast to be around £7bn—but so did the spending for the 2012 Olympics in London. The popular mood might be temporarily negative in Brazil as a result of this overspend, as it was in the run-up to London 2012, but once the first ball kicks off and the Brazilian team start doing well, the mood will change. What the World Cup gives back is immense—you can’t quantify the feel-good factor it creates for the host nation. 

Simon Kuper: I respect your arguments Sol, but I can’t agree. You say that in the long term, hosting will be a “huge benefit” to Brazil’s economy. Well, if that benefit exists, economists haven’t found it, and they’ve been looking for it for about 25 years. The reason is that the things you buy for a tournament—shiny stadiums, roads to those stadiums, lots of security—are rarely essential for normal life. Yes, the World Cup has forced Brazil to upgrade its stadiums. But about half of these 12 new or refurbished venues will become white elephants when the World Cup ends. The one in Brasilia, for instance, seats over 70,000; but no local club regularly draws more than 1,000 spectators. Other than stadiums, Brazil has built hardly any infrastructure for the tournament. There are bigger issues here. You’re arguing that developing countries have a right to host World Cups. But surely their citizens have a more important right to basic needs? Lots of Brazilians still don’t have enough to eat, and their schools and hospitals are mostly awful. I agree: life isn’t just about money. As Stefan Szymanski and I showed in our book Soccernomics, hosting tournaments does seem to boost national happiness. The UK is probably rich enough to blow £9bn on the fortnight of fun that was the London Olympics. But I wish Brazil would increase Brazilian happiness by giving its poorest people the basics first. You say: “Brazil is supposed to be this new country coming out and showing the world how powerful they are.” I just don’t see the benefit of Brazil strutting the “world stage” like some character from a 19th-century comic opera. Nor do most Brazilians: according to the latest survey by Datafolha, the Brazilian pollster, 55 per cent of them think the World Cup will bring “more losses than benefits to Brazilians in general.” 

Sol Campbell: I appreciate Simon’s point that the Brazilian government should be building hospitals and schools, but for a country with such a vast population this is a huge task, and one that is likely to cost more than £7bn. Brazil is rich in natural resources and until recently was experiencing rapid economic growth—they just need to adopt a less protectionist stance and open themselves up more to foreign investment. But it’s not the World Cup’s responsibility to bring about this type of social and economic change. Where it can help is in exposing Brazil’s problems to the world’s media in an unprecedented fashion. Simon’s claim that “half the stadiums will become white elephants” is flawed because there is an obvious solution—diversify what they are used for. Take Wembley Stadium—it is used for everything from the Champion’s League final to rugby events and pop concerts. They should do the same with stadiums across Brazil. The current mood might be slightly disillusioned, but this is because Brazil is also preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games—staging both events so close together has put a lot of pressure on their emerging economy. But if they weren’t in this position they would have no impetus to sort out their infrastructure and economic issues. The World Cup has forced Brazil to modernise. 

Simon Kuper: You say the money being spent on the World Cup wouldn’t go far towards paying for healthcare and education. According to Futebol Nation, the new book by the football historian David Goldblatt, Brazil’s National Court of Auditors anticipates that the total public spending on the tournament would be “enough money to pay the entire country’s annual Bolsa Familia [social welfare] bill twice over.” He says 2014 is “the most expensive World Cup ever.” You also advocate diverse uses for Brazil’s stadiums. That’s what the previous host, South Africa, wanted to do. But it turns out there aren’t many international rugby matches or Beyoncé concerts you can stage in a provincial town. Even in Cape Town, there are calls to tear down the loss-making, pointless World Cup stadium. That’s the future for Brazilian cities like Manaus and Natal. More broadly, we need to rethink hosting. Politicians must stop pretending that hosting boosts the economy, or increases national glory. I’m not sure what national glory means to very poor people. If Brazil’s governments had said, “Hosting a World Cup is like hosting a party. It costs money, but we’ll have fun,” at least that would have been honest. Uefa, the European football authority, isn’t naming a single host for Euro 2020, because it doesn’t want to land one country with the expense. Instead there will be 13 host cities. Fifa needs a new model too. It could impose a maximum number of stadiums—seven or eight, say. After all, nobody watches the World Cup for the venues. Let’s hope Brazil is the last poor country to get stuck with enormous costs while Fifa pockets almost all the profits. 

Sol Campbell: While I respect Simon’s argument, he risks losing the true meaning of an international sporting event like the World Cup by reducing it to facts and figures. He’s also forgetting about the fans—all they want is to watch their country do well in, and maybe even win, the tournament. They want a fantastic show. It is true that Fifa pockets a lot of the profits from the sale of television and marketing rights, but when you consider how many people watch the World Cup around the globe you can understand why the sponsors are keen to be involved—the brand exposure is unbeatable. We just need to make sure that the profits from the event are put back into football. The idea of spreading out the responsibility for hosting the World Cup is not new—South Korea and Japan held it together in 2002. That could increase to a maximum of three, maybe even five countries, but 13 is too many. I would also give those countries 12 to 16 years to prepare [currently it’s seven years]. If there were no significant progress in the first four years, then Fifa could re-allocate it to a nation that has existing facilities, such as the UK or Germany. But I am confident that this will be a memorable and colourful World Cup, even if the run-up has been a bit of a rollercoaster. In the future I’m sure Brazil would rather be known as the powerhouse of Latin America than a developing nation; hosting the World Cup should help them achieve this. 

Simon Kuper: I agree that the World Cup is a great thing. It’s the event that comes closest to uniting the planet. It makes people happier. And precisely because it is a great thing, it deserves a better preparation and aftermath. Even if now we have a brilliant month of football, it will have been preceded by years of complaints by Brazilians about wasteful spending and alleged corruption. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is set to be preceded by a full decade of revelations about alleged bribery and ill-treated immigrant workers perishing while building stadiums. And as for the aftermath of these events: when the Wall Street Journal checked in 2010, 21 of the 22 venues built for the Athens Olympics of 2004 were unused. Let’s have some standards for hosting: we need fewer and simpler stadiums; no more white elephants; host governments should be made to enact proper labour laws; and they must stop lying to their populations about supposed economic benefits. I’d like to end this by saying, “Fifa should tell us exactly what happens to all the billions that it takes in from TV and sponsors,” but then I really would sound like a utopian dreamer. A less shameful hosting process strikes me as perfectly feasible.