Few other spectacles garner as much interest as the Fifa World Cup.
It is reportedly the most watched sporting event in the world, seen by an estimated 800 million people on more than 210 TV channels.
Held every four years, the month long event is a knockout football tournament pitting the best teams from every continent against each other. So big is the World Cup that hosting it is coveted by many nations. Some countries have even been accused of paying bribes and bid-rigging to ensure they get hosting rights. Countries pledge massive spending to meet the world football governing body Fifa’s strict standards to ensure their hosting bids are considered.
For richer nations hosting the World Cup usually brings little controversy.
The hefty financial commitment needed is usually readily available and well within reach. In recent years, Fifa has shown a willingness to give the hosting rights to less well-heeled countries such as current hosts Brazil and immediate former hosts South Africa.
This gesture is laudable as it makes football a platform for unifying the haves and have-nots. But not all are in support of poorer countries hosting the World Cup.
The first set of critics is made up of those that doubt the ability of these countries to deliver a quality event. When South Africa hosted in 2010, many expressed doubts about the country’s ability to build quality stadiums and provide adequate support facilities such as accommodation and transport. In the end those aspects of the event turned out to be just as good as any other hosts’.
South Africa was even praised by Fifa president Sepp Blatter as having held the best organised tournament in the history of the World Cup. Likewise, many queried Brazil’s readiness to host the current tournament but so far all the stadiums have been finished on time.
What is more worrying are the concerns raised by the second set of critics. These are people that question the priorities of governments that are willing to spend vast amounts on hosting the World Cup but fail to provide even basic facilities for their citizens.
South Africa still has scores of people living in squalor without proper housing and access to clean water and ablution facilities. Brazil also has millions in shanty towns that are equally bad. Citizens in Brazil are up in arms over what they see as misplaced priorities.
A poll taken shortly before the World Cup started showed about 60% of Brazilians in the soccer-crazed nation did not want to host the tournament because of the seemingly wasteful spending on new and refurbished stadia. Why not use the money to better the lives of citizens they question?
The discontent has led to street protests in Brazil. Protesters have taken to the streets holding placards demanding better education and medical facilities. Some workers have also demanded a bigger share of the huge sums of money spent. Subway and airport workers have asked for raises of up to 12%.
Police have responded with heavy handed tactics with some news agencies reporting the use of live bullets on crowds of protesters. Many have been arrested and a few people have lost their lives.
Most of the money used in hosting big events like the world cup goes towards the cost of putting up or sprucing up stadia. It is here that some protesters claim the real interest of politicians lie.
Accusations are that politicians receive massive kickbacks for awarding the contracts to those who build the infrastructure. In fact, conspiracy theorists allege the hosting of the World Cup has become one big gravy train with Fifa executives and host nation politicians being the main beneficiaries.
The World Cup aside, in many countries the merits of hosting major sporting events are now being questioned.
Aside from the aforementioned controversies, it turns out the costly infrastructures built to cater for the games are in many cases unfit for day to day use thereafter.
Mega stadiums will never be filled again. Fancy support structures become ‘white elephants’.
Even Zimbabwe has had this experience. After hosting the All Africa Games in 1995 many facilities including hockey stadiums in Bulawayo and Harare and an Olympic size swimming facility in Chitungwiza have hardly been used again.
In fact, the Chitungwiza aquatic complex which has three pools, one of them equipped with heaters and underwater cameras is now home to a pub and a venue which hosts all manner of functions. The money used to build these facilities could have been used to build schools or roads, things that the community actually needs and wants.
Those that are in support of hosting major events say that the marketing value of a well hosted event is immense. Tourism can be boosted beyond the duration of the event by the publicity generated around it. Many have claimed the USA’s hosting of the Wold Cup was actually a profitable venture.
As the World Cup spectacle goes on so do the protests and strikes. The bulk of the related costs have already been expended and are now “sunk costs”.
After a few weeks the circus will leave town and Brazil’s poor will go back to a life of housing shortages and inadequate educational facilities.
The nation will for years come to a standtall and boast of having hosted the prestigious World Cup. But many in the country will always question whether the opportunity cost was worth it.