As we edge closer to the start of the World Cup finals, my thoughts have nothing to do with the usual questions, like which team is likely to lift the trophy or the players that will distinguish themselves in Brazil and earn a deserved place in the tournament’s pantheon of legends.
What has preoccupied me is the consistent fury of working-class and under-privileged Brazilians, about the money being spent on hosting the World Cup.
Their depth of anger, about bearing the cost of hosting a tournament they regard as being too expensive, should compel anyone that cares about the game to acknowledge the disturbing disconnect between the tournament and a fundamental part of what makes it successful – the fans.
The irony cannot be lost that it is in the country regarded as the game’s spiritual home that citizens are showing deep anger against what they see as a World Cup that will do nothing to bring a lasting, positive change to the quality of their lives.
Demanding that their government pays the same financial attention to public services, such as health, transport, education and housing, as is given to the construction of stadia and the provision of ancillary facilities needed for the hosting of the World Cup, the question of the growing cost, as well as the size and organisation, of future tournaments is one that cannot be ignored.
FIFA is certainly within its rights to prescribe hosting conditions to countries keen to host its premier tournament – and no country is compelled to bid if they feel their terms are onerous.
However, it would certainly not be in the game’s interest if a serious and brutally frank assessment, of the tournament’s growing cost and format, is not carried out in the very near future.
The biggest issue of all, besides finding a way to keep the cost of hosting future World Cups within reasonable limits, whilst maintaining standards, is ensuring that it always has the popular support of the ordinary citizens wherever it is played.
It would be assumed that for any host nation, particularly those that are democratically governed and whose officials ought to be accountable to the people that elect them into office, that’s a fact that ought to go without saying, especially when $11 billion of taxpayer’s money is reportedly being spent.
When Ronaldo, a member of the tournament’s Local Organising Committee (LOC), makes unusual, unsparing comments about the prevailing situation, it certainly highlights the gravity of Brazil’s predicament.
“I think we’re missing an opportunity. A series of investments were promised which will not be delivered. Only 30 per cent will be delivered,” the 2002 World Cup winner bluntly told a forum organised by newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
“My shame is for the people, who were hoping for major investments, that’s the great legacy of the Cup for us. They were expecting a lot and they’re the ones most hurt by the situation.
“I don’t think FIFA are going to want to organise another Cup here. They are going to be traumatised,” he said.
Ronaldo’s unvarnished remarks offer a glimpse into what could be a particularly frightening time over the next few weeks, especially if World Cup matches are completely overshadowed by television pictures and newspaper reports about demonstrations angry Brazilians are clearly determined to have, to express their continuing discontent with a tournament they see as only benefitting the country’s elite.
That will be a public relations disaster for Brazil’s government and a nightmare that FIFA is desperate to avoid, as the World Cup is the financial goose that lays all its golden eggs. Bad publicity is the last thing the competition needs.
And no true fan of football, keen to enjoy a month of excitement, wants that either.
But as Rahm Emmanuel, the former chief of staff of US president Barack Obama, presciently observed: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste… it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
A difficult tournament in Brazil might (or, hopefully, will) compel the game’s chieftains to solve the nagging problem of how to plot the popularity and prestige of the tournament without an unreasonable growth in organisational cost and complexity in the future.
By resolving or confronting this issue with demonstrable seriousness, FIFA can avoid – or at least minimise – being caught up in the conflict between a government and its people, as they certainly have been in the Brazilian situation.
World Cups are awarded to national associations and largely underwritten by their governments.
But the timely reminder we are all getting, courtesy of the Brazilian people, is that the consent, support and involvement of ordinary people, in the conception and financial management of the game’s biggest show, is a vital ingredient to its success and growth.
It is an expensive, public lesson that would be well learnt. Ignoring it would be a grave mistake.
Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.