FIFA World Cup: The games, the gamesmanship

For the next month, the eyes of Cayman – and the world – will be focused the football stadiums of Brazil, the host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

The object of people’s obsession is the action on the pitch, but outside the lines and behind closed doors, a shadow game plays on that is in some ways more complex than the sport itself and, arguably, of greater financial consequence.

In the months leading up to the tournament, pervasive popular discontent broke out into open protests across Brazil, which at first may seem counterintuitive in a nation that is synonymous with football, but becomes understandable given the government’s exorbitant spending on the event in the context of rampant poverty and immense economic disparities between classes.

The key conflict in Brazil is whether the benefits of hosting the World Cup (and the 2016 Summer Olympics) will justify the country’s expenses?

In Brazil, preparing for the World Cup has cost the government US$14 billion or more – a staggering figure even for a country of 200 million people, given that the per-capita GDP in 2012 was about US$11,000, placing Brazil between Mexico and Kazakhstan according to that metric.

For reference, the tournament’s last host, South Africa, spent nearly US$4 billion on the 2010 World Cup, without realizing the full economic benefits organizers had projected.

The off-the-pitch activity is not confined to the governments of the host countries, but occurs in every place high-level football is played and everywhere that is touched by FIFA, the governing body of association football.

Recently, the subject of “match fixing” – where organized crime meets sports betting – has been given great attention in the international media, including The New York Times, which published a two-part series by Declan Hill, an investigative journalist who was one of the first reporters to investigate the phenomenon in great detail.

We mention Mr. Hill because he has visited Cayman on multiple occasions to talk about his work, and he was featured in the Cayman Islands Journal in November 2011.

Lest anyone in Cayman become consumed by righteous outrage over suspicions of FIFA corruption tainting what should be a noble, pure and joyous endeavor, we should keep in mind that suspected FIFA corruption has been of direct benefit to Cayman.
We refer, of course, to the ascension of our own Jeffrey Webb to the position of FIFA Vice President and CONCACAF President (over Central and North America).

Having a Caymanian in such an influential position has helped Cayman attract several FIFA events and accompanying sports tourism dollars – despite Cayman itself not fielding an internationally competitive national men’s football team.

While Mr. Webb has proven himself as a capable leader, his promotion came about as a result of vacancies in FIFA’s power structure because of a corruption scandal, which is ongoing and involves allegations of bribery in relation to – what else – choosing the host of a future FIFA World Cup.

Currently, the 2022 event is set to be hosted in Qatar, which beat out the U.S. and others, despite the emirate’s average summer temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, its remote location and diminutive size.

For now, though, our goal is to take a timeout from the economic analysis, the political maneuvering, and the peripheral issues taking place on the sidelines, and, like most of our readers, simply enjoy the matches.