When Brazil and Croatia kickoff on Thursday, 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 will occur in Brazil during the World Cup will change 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. Unfortunately, I do not think soccer or the World Cup can say the same.