The World Cup: Is ‘The Beautiful Game' Worth The Political, Economic And Human Cost?
Every four years, the nations of the world come together to celebrate “The Beautiful Game” in a massive and extravagant tournament watched by millions of people around the globe: the World Cup.
It is estimated that around 1 billion people watched the World Cup final in 2010, and fans around the world anxiously await the opening match on June 12.
Football, or soccer for those in the United States, is the world's most popular sport. In many ways, it's the most egalitarian sport in the world.
Some of the world's greatest players have come from the most impoverished corners of the globe, and millions of children dream of attaining the same glory. Anyone can play football, regardless of size, gender or socioeconomic position.
You can substitute goals with two sticks in the ground, and a ball with rubber bands wrapped together — or, in more desperate situations, the roundest rock you can find.
Soccer brings joy and solidarity to billions of people. It is a game that requires not only athleticism and skill, but also finesse and teamwork.
This is exactly why Pelé, one of the most famous footballers of all time, described it as the “beautiful game.”
It is no secret that Brazil has a very special relationship with the game of soccer, which is precisely why its position as the host of the upcoming tournament makes it so exciting.
Brazil has the most successful national team in the history of the World Cup, with five championships in total (notice the five stars on their jerseys) — 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002.
The country has also produced some of the greatest players the world has ever seen: Pelé, Ronaldo, Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Kaká and now the young phenom, Neymar, among others.
Brazil's vibrant and diverse culture is reflected in their dynamic style of play, and the players work together in harmonious and awe-inspiring synchrony when they are on the pitch. They are truly a wonder to watch.
Yet, despite Brazil's infamous love for the game, many within the country are rallying against the World Cup. Last summer, widespread protests broke out across Brazil over the increase in transport costs, which were raised by the government in order to help pay for the tournament. There have also been controversial property seizures, in order to make room for the new stadiums.
According to Al Jazeera: “The overall price of the 12 stadiums, four of which critics say will become white elephants after the tournament because they are in cities that cannot support them, has jumped to $4.2bn in nominal terms, nearly four times the estimate in a 2007 FIFA document published just days before Brazil was awarded the tournament.”
As the Guardian notes, however, these are not the only grievances that the Brazilian people have. Many Brazilians are fed up with the long-standing corruption within the government, rampant inequality, the terrible state of public services, extremely high prices and low levels of safety. This is precisely why millions of Brazilians took to the streets last June. And the fight is not over.
Some Brazilians are determined to prevent the tournament altogether, under a movement known as #NãoVaiTerCopa (#ThereWillBeNoCup).
The World Cup is less than a month away, and there are already a number of planned protests across many of Brazil's largest urban centers, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There will likely be a number of protests in the weeks leading up to the tournament as well as during the month-long event, and there is potential for widespread unrest.
In response, the Brazilian government has made immense preparations when it comes to security, as it does not want to be embarrassed in front of millions of tourists, not to mention the exponentially larger number of people who will be watching the event around the world.
That being said, it is difficult to avoid some very hard questions surrounding what is meant to be a joyous occasion.
Why should the Brazilian people have to suffer in order for their government to pay for a one-time event that they won't benefit from whatsoever? This is a very valid question, and one that FIFA, the organization in charge of the World Cup, must address more intimately in the future.
As Jonathan Watts notes for the Guardian: “In a country where football [soccer] is almost the national religion, people want to enjoy the World Cup, but for millions FIFA has become a tainted brand, associated with a distant global elite who profit at the expense of local people.”
Brazil is not the only country that has suffered as a result of World Cup preparations. In Qatar, which is set to host the 2022 World Cup, there have already been reports of widespread abuses of human rights.
The majority of the population in Qatar is comprised of migrant workers from the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Nepal.
Shockingly, only one in eight people living in Qatar is a national, the rest are migrant workers subject to the brutal Kafala labor system.
Under this system, the workers' travel costs are paid by a sponsor company, and when they arrive in Qatar, basically every aspect of their lives is controlled by these sponsors. It is essentially indentured servitude in modern times.
At present, many of these workers are engaged in construction projects for the World Cup. They work under extreme conditions, in stifling heat, with little pay and terrible safety.
As a troubling report from the Guardian states: “The treatment of these workers is the ugly secret of the beautiful game. Some are tricked into traveling thousands of miles under false pretenses. Too many have their passports confiscated, work without pay, suffer squalid conditions, work excessive hours, and deal with staggering levels of debt.
These abuses aren't one-offs – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Guardian have all made clear that these problems are pretty widespread.”
According to Businessweek, around eight workers have died in construction projects for the Brazil World Cup. No matter what the number, any loss of life is tragic. Yet, the numbers in Brazil are nothing compared to reports coming out of Qatar.
At this point, it is estimated that around 164 Nepalese workers have died in Qatar in the past year, and nearly 680 in the past five years. Some worry that thousands could die in the years prior to what will be the first World Cup held in the Middle East.
On May 14, 2014, however, Qatar announced that it would reform its controversial labor laws. Qatari government officials came forth and claimed that they would give workers more rights and freedoms under a reformed system.
Yet, as noted by ThinkProgress, “International labor organizations and worker advocacy groups, however, insist that… [Qatar] has only rebranded its current system with a new name.”
Thus, it is yet to be seen whether this announcement will have a palpable impact on the lives of migrant workers in Qatar, and it is apparent that this issue needs continued attention.
It is difficult to accept that “the beautiful game” produces so much hardship, and sometimes even death. One would like to believe that it has the potential to foster global solidarity through sport and celebration.
In many ways, it already has accomplished this, and continues to. Yet, perhaps the fans of this game should make a more concerted effort to pressure FIFA to ensure that this “egalitarian” sport is celebrated in ways that promote the equitable treatment of humans in countries around the world.
Fans might also consider that they have a moral imperative not to participate in an event that contributes to the hardship of a majority and the profit of a minority. In many ways, football has now become a metaphor for inequality around the globe.
This is something that is very hard to come to terms with, but remains true all the same. That being said, it is never too late to begin making changes.
One of the most popular Portuguese phrases surrounding football in Brazil is “joga bonito,” which means, “play beautifully.” According to Urban Dictionary, it is “The concept of returning soccer to its high and honorable state.
To remove cheaters, hackers, and divers. To play with honor, pride, respect, strength, and as a team… Never abandon your teammates, that is joga bonito.”
In the same way, we need to begin to see people beyond our own borders as our teammates. We live in a complex and globalized world in which we are all interconnected.
If we do not learn to care for one another, as one would for a teammate, we will all lose in the end. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson to take from the World Cup.
Subscribe to Elite Daily's official newsletter, The Edge, for more stories you don't want to miss.