A liberal reading of the World Cup

The 2014 Brazil World Cup caused a considerable amount of conflict throughout the world as people protested primarily against the effects of the expenditure of such a large amount of money on the Brazilian society. Protests and riots occurred in Brazil before and during the Cup, and international support is clearly seen through social mediums such as Twitter (@FuckFifa, #NoVoyABrasilPorque). Such a strong reaction shows the influence of sport on social issues, which in turn flows out into the political field. FIFA’s approach to the World Cup can be in some ways likened to modern liberalism and can give us a reading of its reception, its strengths and weaknesses, and overall success, in other areas.

Liberal democracy is seen to be the ideal regime in modern politics; many of the largest powers are liberal democracies and push to spread their own values to other nations. Doyle and Recchia’s article in 2011 discusses this regime, stating that the ideal version of liberalism:

  • allows citizens juridical equality and fundamental civic rights
  • grants unrestrained sovereignty to states, represented by elected legislatures
  • focuses on private property rights, including the ownership of the means of production, and
  • frees markets from strict control by bureaucracies.

A cursory look at the World Cup will show that these principles match up. Qualifying teams are entered as representatives of their nation state and have equal status at the beginning of the tournament. Team sports are often considered as cooperative and egalitarian, which lines up with the liberal ideal. Third and fourthly, a country will host the cup based on perceived benefits to its economy. The alleged benefits to the hosting nation are stimulation to the economy due to increased jobs for private tourism and construction companies, on the basis of increased demand: for example, the construction of stadiums and team housing, increased tourism and hospitality services, and the effects of having generally a larger amount of people in the city.

Whereas all this may be the case, the pervasive theme that arises from this debate is that around economic benefit above all else. Despite public resistance to the Cup – seen through the anti-FIFA movement worldwide and the local riots in Brazil before and during the 2014 Games – the venture was seen through, showing the significance of corporations and their links with governments in the face of citizens’ wishes. In this way the sovereignty of governments is shown to be strongly influenced by corporations. This can also be seen in the wake of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, as discussed in Peter Alegi’s article ‘A Nation to be Reckoned With’. In Alegi’s article it becomes clear just how pervasively economic benefits take priority over social justice and public opinion under the system of liberal democracy.

In the case of the 2010 World Cup, construction and development was in the end selected to take place in a wealthier neighbourhood, rather than a poorer area that would have profited more. Despite reassurances that the Cup is a source of economic and social benefit, it becomes clear exactly who profits the most economically: Alegi discusses how “…the World Cup is FIFA’s main source of revenue, and not a tool for social development and broad-based empowerment.” In this case, interest groups, and local and national government factions all supported the move. This was seemingly not for the direct benefit of South African society but rather in order to comply with FIFA’s “extraordinarily high technical requirements” in the hopes of acquiring a more prestigious status as a middle power by hosting. By hoping to benefit through international recognition, the nation shoulders a large financial burden, compromises other development opportunities – not to mention other legislative rights, as seen also in Brazil when drinking laws previously banning the sale and intake of alcohol within stadiums, were changed due to FIFA’s insistence, whose main sponsor is Budweiser.

Such a situation shows how governments can be influenced economically and end up in a form of interdependence. As a state works attempts to improve the conditions for the nation, it seems it is easy for corporations such as FIFA to take advantage to accumulate profit for itself. Protests by the public did not seem to make an impact; with such social problems apparently stemming from liberal democracies, one cannot safely trust world politics to Fukuyama’s End of History; another form of accountability and decision-making is lacking. The demands of the citizens of the nation, cultural groups, socio-economic groups should be given more of a voice within political debate, allowing a bottom-up level of policy decision making and reaching a purer form of democracy.


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