2 Like

The FIFA World Cup – a critical appraisal

With increasing regularity, mega events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup provide grounds for disquiet. The controversies continue to escalate, with doping scandals, corruption accusations, environmental problems and human rights abuses. The football World Cup in Russia, from 14 June to 15 July, is not the first to have received such criticism.

Mega events are becoming ever more unwieldy – spectator numbers continue to grow, both in the stadiums and in front of the television. The 2006 World Cup in Germany alone pulled in more than three million stadium visitors. By comparison, the figure for the 1982 World Cup in Spain was below two million. Of course, as the spectator numbers increase, so too do the costs. The World Cup in Russia is the most expensive tournament in the event’s history, costing around EUR 10 billion.

Green targets for the FIFA World Cup

Environmental problems are growing apace with the growing size of the events. Huge quantities of rubbish are generated. Air pollution is on the rise. Energy and water consumption are increasing. Building work is carried out in nature reserves.

The World Cup in Germany was the first to take the ecological consequences of mega-events into consideration. To reduce the amount of waste generated in the stadiums, a deposit system was introduced for drinking cups and bottles, while china plates and metal cutlery were largely used instead of the disposable alternatives. To avoid additional air pollution from car journeys to the venues, the tickets to World Cup matches were also valid for travel on public transport. Moreover, water and energy-saving measures were used in the construction of the World Cup stadiums. This included, for example, the building of rainwater collection tanks, the content of which was used to water the pitches and for the sanitation facilities. Solar cells were installed on a number of stadium roofs, and energy-saving lightbulbs were used to replace the existing lighting. The underlying idea was to reduce the long-term environmental impacts as well as the running costs of the stadiums.

The environmental protection objectives were recorded in the Green Goal report of the German organising committee. In 2013, shortly before the World Cup in Brazil, FIFA followed suit with its own environmental protection programme, Football for the Planet.

World Cup stadiums: a herd of white elephants?

Like Brazil and Germany before, Russia too has sought to build its stadiums in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner, in order to keep the energy and water costs as low as possible. It remains to be seen if this can pay for itself. The local organising committee expects that the stadiums, which cost EUR 5.26 billion to build, will nevertheless require state funding to begin with to keep them running. That’s because no long-term use is planned for two of the 12 stadiums, and only six of them will be occupied in the future by first-division football clubs. Thus the Russian stadiums too will probably soon join the herd of white elephants.

“White elephants” refers to those stadiums that, due to FIFA’s requirement for unusually large seating capacities and locations that are difficult in terms of infrastructure, cannot find sufficient use by local clubs or events after the World Cup to cover their running costs. For this reason, most of them stand empty.

The best examples are the stadiums of Brazil, where the cities of Brasília, Cuiabá, Natal and Manaus that are home to such white elephants don’t even have football clubs that play in the professional league. Attempts have been made to cover the running costs of these stadiums by relocating first division matches, and by sometimes organising concerts, tower running races and flea markets. Yet shortly after the World Cup in 2014, eight of the 12 stadiums were running at a loss. In 2014 alone, the losses sustained by the Brazilian stadiums amounted to EUR 42 million.

No World Cup without World Cup legislation

Changes to the law or legal infringements and legal exceptions related to World Cup tournaments often benefit individuals rather than helping to improve the quality of life of the wider population. Associated phenomena with a negative impact include poor working conditions, forced resettlement and lost tax revenues.

For instance, before the World Cup Brazil was obliged to exempt FIFA from any import duties, income tax and VAT payments. This enabled FIFA to take its EUR 3.3 billion profit back to Switzerland, tax-free. This was not unique to Brazil. In Germany too, FIFA was given numerous legally enshrined privileges in the form of tax exemptions.

Other World Cup laws define areas of exclusivity around the stadiums. In these protected zones only licensed retailers are entitled to sell goods. By doing this in Brazil, for four weeks FIFA denied a livelihood to any traders who did not obtain a licence. In South Africa more than 500 companies were sent to court for having supposedly contravened the FIFA licensing law.

Mega events and human rights

In Brazil, this was compounded in the slums of the World Cup host cities by illegal forced clearances, displacements and violence at the hands of the police. The Popular Committee  of the World Cup estimated that nearly 250,000 people were affected by compulsory resettlement as a result of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Little wonder then that in the run-up to the event, in Rio de Janeiro alone, some 300,000 people demonstrated against FIFA and called for the construction of new schools, hospitals and metro railways instead of the new stadiums.

But the Brazilian World Cup was not the only one to generate negative headlines. The organisation Human Rights Watch claimed that labourers employed on the Russian World Cup construction sites were working under near-slavery conditions. They had to toil in temperatures as low as -25 degrees Celsius, working at great heights and without safety measures or protection against the cold. The labourers, some of whom came from North Korea, had their passports taken away, and in many cases were paid just half their wages or nothing at all. In the process 21 people lost their lives. In Qatar, host of the World Cup in 2022, working conditions are said to be so bad that several hundred people have perished on the construction sites since 2010.

BRICS countries in particular, such as South Africa and Brazil, are still struggling to cope with the costs of hosting the World Cup finals and remain in debt to this day. They are still waiting for the anticipated economic boom that was to follow the World Cup. The expansion of infrastructure usually comes at the cost of the environment, and it is designed to fit the needs of the mega event. Only in isolated cases have the local people benefited from the newly built connections between the sporting venues and the airports and city centres. As such, apart from FIFA itself, it is mainly construction companies as well as the sponsors and TV broadcasters that profit from the World Cup.

The football World Cup and intercultural understanding

Yet for all the scandals and criticisms, it is important not to forget a few important factors: with its international character, the FIFA World Cup contributes to intercultural understanding. It can help dismantle prejudices while increasing feelings of solidarity within the population. For instance, according to the tourism agency South Africa Tourism, when it hosted the event South Africa managed to raise its global profile as a holiday destination by nine per cent. Similarly, according to the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index (NBI), the German brand experienced a global improvement after Germany’s turn as World Cup hosts.

The impact on Brazil’s image was mixed: On the one hand the samba and carnival stereotypes retain their positive associations; on the other, the country’s image suffered from the government crisis and the large sums of public money invested in the World Cup stadiums. We have yet to see if Russia experiences a boost in its image as a host, despite the calls for a boycott that preceded the event.

What does the World Cup mean to you? In your opinion, who are the winners and losers of a World Cup finals? Would you like to see the World Cup held in your own country? Join in the conversation in the comments below.

Author: Stefanie Staab

July 2018

The text of this page is licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. Additional terms may apply for other contents like images/media. By using this website you agree to the Terms of Use and the Privacy Policy. Please note also our terms for correct designation of the author and source and translations.


14 February 2020

I am using this information for a project and information about the author is needed. Can you please reply with information about your career etc etc.

Finlay Beck
5 December 2019

Very cool topic

Finlay Beck
4 December 2019

Very cool topic

Add a comment now