Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach of the U.S. soccer team, caught flak for saying that it’s “not realistic” to believe that his men can win the World Cup. While a U.S. victory would indeed be a shock, the most unrealistic thing about the World Cup is the wider hopes that are pinned on it.
In 1994, the United States hosted what remains, by measure of attendance, the most successful World Cup of them all, so clearly there is an American audience for soccer. But it’s a limited one. Why? Sports historians have concluded that it’s because, around the world, soccer began as the game of the working man.
But in the United States in the mid-19th century, baseball, the game of the Northeast’s cities, claimed soccer’s audience before it could establish itself. In the early 20th century, college football and then basketball grabbed the rest of the crowds, leaving the United States, as in so much else, an exceptional nation.
While we don’t play (much) soccer, it’s immensely popular around the world, partly because you need only a ball. Although it began as the game of the common man, at the top level, it’s now the property of the rich, and there’s no better evidence than the World Cup.
Figuring the cost of hosting a major sporting event is difficult, in part because it’s become so high that nations have an incentive to lie about it. While Brazil claims to have spent $3.5 billion, Forbes estimates the true cost at $11 billion, a price accompanied by the usual corruption, forced slum clearances, and serious concerns about whether the facilities would be ready and safe.
As always, the justification for this splurge is that it will make everyone better off by creating jobs and funding modern infrastructure. A majority of Brazilians — 61 percent, in a recent survey — don’t agree. And they’re right. With Brazilians themselves buying more than 60 percent of the tickets, the World Cup is not so much bringing new money into the country as it is shuffling old money around.
Building an airport terminal can sometimes make sense, but new stadiums, which sit empty most of the time, are a waste of money. And rushing to build infrastructure quickly guarantees even more money is wasted. The World Cup is like stimulus spending on steroids, and it’s no more effective.
The opening of this World Cup was marked by riots, though so far nothing compared to the protests by the 1 million Brazilians who took to the streets in June 2013, in part to protest World Cup spending. And they’re not the only ones who are tired of these expensive circuses: The Olympics are feeling the fatigue, too.
Of the eight nations that seriously considered bidding for the 2022 Winter Games, four have dropped out. Sweden is shaky, and Ukraine has no hope. That leaves China and Kazakhstan, autocracies that want to advertise themselves and don’t care about costs — or the will of the people.
But now the spotlight is on soccer. The next World Cup will be held in Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2018. In 2022, the circus moves to Qatar, an Arab nation with no tradition of top-flight soccer, where hundreds of near-slaves have already died building stadiums, and where the average summer temperature exceeds 100 degrees.
Qatar has no business hosting anything. It got the job the old-fashioned way: by buying it. The fact that FIFA, soccer’s governing body, calls criticism of Qatar “racist” tells you all you need to know about its Mafia-like culture, where what matters is the payoff a bidder can deliver.
But the fault is ours. The trick of claiming that ramped-up government spending and crony capitalism creates jobs is an old one, and not just in Brazil. Too many Americans have also fallen for it. If you think you can get rich quick by borrowing, taxing and spending, you deserve to get stuck with the bills.
Originally posted on Newsday.