FIFA, world football’s governing body, is not a perfect multinational corporation. It would be quite naïve to envisage that the World Cup should have the capacity to bring world peace, fix global inequality, stamp out racism and overcome other issues espoused by various academic, media and public commentators in recent weeks.
On balance, however, the World Cup as an institution is a force for global good – for a number of reasons. First, the tournament brings the world together. FIFA has 209 national football associations affiliated to it that compete in the various competitions it organises. These members also aim to qualify for the World Cup finals every four years.
While only 32 countries compete in the World Cup finals, over the years many countries have qualified. In 2014, Bosnia and Herzegovina became the 77th country to take part in the World Cup. This high level of global participation is unprecedented among sporting events and provides many opportunities for international contact and soft diplomacy.
Second, football is played in all countries around the world, by both sexes, all classes, all shapes and sizes, in diverse venues and by groups who are marginalised in certain societies. There are men’s and women’s world cups, youth world cups, the Homeless World Cup and various disability football competitions. It truly is the “world game”.
Football’s growth, while owing much to the game’s intrinsic nature, is also indebted to the World Cup, which is now approaching its centenary. Football is an established sport in many countries but it is a relatively new phenomenon in some parts of the world, such as the Middle East and parts of Asia. Global participation in football, which is supported by the World Cup, plays a major role in creating cohesion.
Thirdly – and importantly – the World Cup doesn’t reinforce hegemonic power relations. China, the new world superpower, topped the 2008 and ran second in the 2012 Olympic medal table but failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. In Brazil, the US made it to second round where it was eliminated by Belgium, a country with 1/30th of its population.
Costa Rica, most famous for its bananas, made it to the last eight, while an Islamic country, Algeria, was unlucky not to get into the final eight. The former colonial powers of England, Spain, Portugal and Italy were knocked out in the group stages. Football creates its own world order.
Fourth, the athletes who compete in the World Cup become role models for youth around the world. The players, with all their athleticism and skills, are positive role models. In football there are fewer drug scandals, fewer betting scandals and fewer instances of on-field violence. When anything negative happens, such as the Luis Suarez biting incident, it is condemned by all and action is taken.
While many of the athletes are multi-millionaires their participation in the World Cup transcends money. The Greek team was motivated to do well to bring joy to their nation, which has been reeling from economic hardships. Despite their domestic difficulties, Iraq fought valiantly to qualify. No matter what the national circumstances, the World Cup motivates youth around the world to play football and be better human beings. In this way, it plays an important role in transgenerational development.
Fifth, the standard of play at the World Cup has surpassed all expectations and continues to draw in new fans. There have been plenty of goals and most teams in most games played positive football. In the round of 16, five of the eight games went to extra time.
The beauty of football is not the blow-out scores (see, for example, AFL and basketball) but the closeness of games. Low-scoring games create tension. Brazil dominated Colombia in their quarter-final and went 2-0 up, but was lucky to win the match. Australia lost to eventual semi-finalists Holland 3-2 in the group stage despite arguably playing better.
Low-scoring tension is what makes football so special and gripping. Gripping viewing means the game draws in billions of viewers. Again, this builds social cohesion and capital.
Last month I visited South Africa, four years after it hosted the World Cup. I was interested to see what the locals from diverse parts of South African society thought about the legacy of the World Cup. Much has been made of the lack of legacy.
While it is true that FIFA left with a huge tax-free profit and the games did cost South Africa an enormous amount, there are outcomes that could not be measured simply in monetary terms. Football brought the nation together and Africa had hosted its first World Cup. The World Cup was also the catalyst for many domestic initiatives, such as the re-introduction of physical education and sport in public schools, which had been removed post-apartheid.
Based on the usual hegemonic criteria that govern the world, South Africa may not have been the ideal venue for the 2010 tournament any more than Qatar isn’t the ideal venue for the 2022 World Cup. The point is that FIFA (with all its faults) governs the World Cup as a force of good and world unity. And the tournament will continue to be so, at least in the near future.