The World Cup begins in Brazil on Thursday, and some aspects of “the beautiful game” are looking a bit unattractive. No, not soccer itself — it still thrills, as the quadrennial cup will surely showcase. Rather, the gamesmanship surrounding it, including allegations of bribes to referees in games before the 2010 tournament held in South Africa and to officials from FIFA (soccer’s governing body) who chose Qatar for the event in 2022.
Back in Brazil, the current World Cup worry isn’t match- or host-fixing, but fixing stadiums still not ready for the throngs of futbol fans who will watch the 32-team tournament.
The spiraling price for the incomplete infrastructure may also carry a political cost for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who faces an October election. A new Pew Research Global Attitudes Project released this week shows a sharp spike in Brazilians expressing dissatisfaction “with things in Brazil today,” from 55 percent last year to 72 percent. And only about a third of Brazilians say hosting the World Cup is a “good thing because it creates jobs,” while 61 percent say it’s a “bad thing because it takes money away from public services.”
Whether this discontent dissipates before the July 13 championship or increases into 2016, when Rio de Janeiro will play host to the Summer Olympics, is a key question not just for Brazil but for potential hosts for the 2022 Winter Games. Already opting out are Krakow, Stockholm, Munich and Davos-St. Moritz. Oslo also will likely drop its bid, too. That leaves Lviv, Ukraine (which seems a bit preoccupied) and Beijing (known more for smog than snow) to try to top likely “winner” Almaty (a remote but increasingly important international city, as I discovered during a 2013 reporting trip to Kazakhstan).
The hesitation to host, however, shouldn’t suggest declining interest in international sporting events.
“We’re an event society,” said Ben Grossman, a Bay Area-based media consultant who has worked for Twitter as well as Broadcasting & Cable magazine, among other media roles. Grossman, a Hopkins native, isn’t just a media maven but has soccer expertise, too. He worked for Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids and for the 1994 World Cup. (He even uses a logo from the old Minnesota Kicks team for his Twitter avatar).
The long-anticipated graduation from youth-league participation to major-league legitimacy has finally manifested itself with MLS. The league is filling stadium seats and increasingly couches, as evidenced by a freshly inked eight-year, $720 million TV deal for MLS and U.S. Soccer signed by ESPN, Fox and Univision. (Here at home, there’s hope that MLS can add a “P” to its acronym by awarding Minneapolis a franchise, too.)
Fans are more focused on the momentum than the mayhem with FIFA, said Grossman.
“I don’t think that’s going to hurt the game at all,” he said. “And if the American team gets hot and breaks out of its bracket play, the ratings will absolutely explode.”
Breaking out against Ghana, Portugal and Germany (the so-called “group of death”) will be tough. And yet, America’s underdog soccer squad increases the international appeal of the World Cup, said Doug Hartmann, a University of Minnesota sociology professor. Hartmann, who focuses on the sociology of sport, detects an interesting inversion of how Americans perceive global sporting spectacles.
“Americans often watch the Olympics only as a nationalistic competition with a patriotic idea of ‘How is the U.S. doing?’ I think fans of the World Cup are a little less interested in how the U.S. is doing, and more interested in the international competition,” he said. “If you think of the long ideals of sport creating cross-cultural understanding, [the World Cup] is a little bit true to the Olympic ideal.”
Hartmann points out that because soccer is “not a dominant part of our hegemonic sports culture, but a little bit more peripheral,” the fan base is a bit different. Given its global nature, soccer has always been popular with immigrants, who make up a higher proportion of the population than at any time since Ellis Island. And American-born fans tend to be worldly, compared with the general population, he added.
Sure, like fans worldwide, U.S. viewers will root for the home team. In fact, nationalism is natural everywhere and will be channeled into the 32 teams from the six continents represented in the tourney. And yet in a world riven with divisions, soccer — played and popular everywhere — is one of the truly unifying global interests. So the World Cup will likely draw the world closer, at least for one fun month.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.