Sunday, July 18, 2010

FIFA World Cup 2010 and beyond

The vuvuzela horns have stopped buzzing. Paul, the octopus has retired from oracle predictions and went back to his formal job – to make children laugh. Columbian pop star Shakira’s titillating Waka Waka has lost its impetus. The FIFA World Cup 2010 is now history. For one month we were glued to ESPN, spending sleepless nights to assiduously follow the thrill of the greatest show on Earth. Apart from the tainted IT firm Satyam which was one of the official sponsors of the FIFA tournament and the ubiquitous and talkative Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan who was seen in the galleries and later found posing beside Shakira for a valued World Cup memento, India was nowhere in the picture. Needless to say, the holy land of masala cricket is not likely to be there anytime in near future. However it did not stop the Indian television channels to emulate each other and implement all-out efforts for loudening and sustaining the hype surrounding world’s most watched sporting event. After all, football is a mass television-packaged entertainment drenched with television money. The wedlock between football and television is making both the parties richer and richer everyday. Just before the semi-finals, Uruguay’s manager Oscar Tabarez had commented in a press conference that the other three semi-finalist countries Netherlands, Germany and Spain have “more footballers than we have people.” Similarly it can be said with some certainty that India perhaps have an abnormally higher number of football experts than it has genuine admirers of the beautiful game. For every football expert of one television channel, there was always an equal and opposite expert in the other; although there was not necessarily an equal and opposite fact available to constantly argue upon. A football expert in Indian television is someone who does not necessarily needs to be associated with the game. Indian television producers have uniquely promoted even wary political lackeys and stupid film stars as football experts – just to cash-on their dubious public appeal.

Now when the vibrant sports extravaganza is over, the upbeat South African football officials and government ministers are confidently preparing to bid for the 2020 Olympic Games – the first Olympics on African soil. And why will they not when the “very happy” world sport moguls including IOC president Jacques Rogge and FIFA president Sepp Blatter are loudly praising them for managing the gala tournament so well? Aren’t the stereotyping of a poverty, crime, violence and corruption infested country and the subsequent bleak predictions of skeptics been proven wrong? The chief executive of the World Cup local organizing committee (LOC) Danny Jordaan therefore has every reason to boast about their achievement in “re-branding and repositioning” South Africa. Didn’t the event play an immense role to integrate and unify the once racially segregated black and white South Africans of the country? Didn’t the inspiring visuals of blacks and whites sitting side by side at fan parks and stadiums or talking to each other in service stations and supermarkets enough to prove that post-apartheid South Africa has demolished the apartheid-influenced barriers and walked away far from its dark past? The tournament seems to have momentarily set aside the solemn conflicts of racial solitudes within the country and helped to spread widespread patriotic feelings and pan-African sentiment. Other than these psychological benefits, the South African government has forecasted a 0.4 percent increase in South Africa’s real gross domestic product which will add nearly $5-billion to the national economy in the current year, mostly through tourism and construction inducements. The government has also proclaimed that the World Cup has created 130,000 new jobs which will alleviate poverty and help to uplift social backwardness in the country. These are what the South African minions of FIFA had described as ‘trickle down benefits’ of the “largely successful” tournament.

But this official pride and confidence, the feel-good nationalism, the enthusiasm and unity displayed by the local population during the event will start vanishing into the blue soon when bitter reality will start striking back. For a country with deep inequality between the rich and the poor, an ominous atmosphere of concealed segregation, a profoundly worrying unemployment rate and pathetic living conditions that lacks all but the most basic amenities like electricity or running water, these “achievements” might soon turn bitter and ugly. Also not to forget that South Africa has the highest number of people infected with HIV than any other country in the world. The South African government which has chipped in $5-billion taxpayer’s money (along with $400 million to $900 million added by provincial and municipal governments) for infrastructure developments and hoping to capitalize economically on the widespread praise and sweet-talks it has earned for holding a successful World Cup seems to be heedless about some serious repercussions. This money has been siphoned away from public funds allocated to fund basic services like education, housing and healthcare for the ordinary and poor South Africans. In addition, there are already rumors floating in the air that as soon as the World Cup is over xenophobic attacks like the deadly May 2008 violence will be unleashed on African immigrants and refugees who had journeyed to South Africa in search of livelihood. The 2008 attacks had left 62 people dead, 670 injured and forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes. The rumors are evidence of the fragile state of pan-African solidarity in the country and how much substance do the loud claims by organizers really carry. (Source) The high-spirited mood of support that the South Africans threw behind Ghana was a short-lived phenomenon, presumably the effect of the World Cup craze. It will not last in the long run.

Critics have argued that the money spend to build the state of the art stadiums could have built an estimated 90,000 new houses per annum. Dave Zirin, sports correspondent for The Nation magazine and one of the finest sportswriters of our time has written in his weekly column: “This is a country where staggering wealth and poverty already stand side by side. The World Cup, far from helping this situation, is just putting a magnifying glass on every blemish of this post-apartheid nation. To see a country already dotted with perfectly usable stadiums spend approximately $6 billion on new facilities is to notice a squandering of resources that is unconscionable.” (Source) What will happen to these massive stadiums when the tournament is over now? Other than hosting the national football league and rugby matches, these massive stadiums will be of no other practical use. It will be hard for these white elephants to remain commercially viable but on the contrary will continue to dissipate millions of taxpayer’s money as annual maintenance costs in the coming years. The government’s ridiculous claim about creating new jobs was also nothing but a myth-making effort as most of the jobs created by the tournament were temporary and is not going to extant after the circus has moved away. The most worrying fact is South Africa might have to face the same rumbling music what Greece is facing today. Greece had spent a massive $11-billion (at current exchange rates) on the 2004 Olympics and the reckless spending is one of the contributing factors that have nearly bankrupted the country and caused the latest outbreak of world financial crisis and a €500 billion bailout. (Source)

Marcus Solomon, a political prisoner with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island who was also a leader of the legendary Makana Football Association which fought apartheid through football, has harshly condemned the World Cup as a multibillion-dollar boondoggle. “There’s all this hype in the media, selling it as God’s gift to the poor, but it’s for the elite,” he had pungently remarked. “Billions are being spent on new highways to the stadiums, but meanwhile there are no roads in the townships. People are desperate to play soccer, but there are no facilities in the townships. They have to play on the side of the road, or wherever they can. This World Cup doesn’t benefit anyone except a few soccer bosses.” (Source) Whether South Africa will economically benefit from the event is unsure but there is absolutely no doubt that World Cup 2010 will bring massive profit on the doorsteps of FIFA, which expects to make $3.2-billion in revenue from the tournament. It is therefore no wonder why Sepp Blatter has described this year’s event as the most commercially successful tournament ever. (Source)

The South African government had exempted FIFA, the enormously wealthy and extremely powerful governing body for world football, from many of South Africa’s normal laws and taxes and handed over part of its legal system for the duration of the tournament. Activist and academic Raj Patel has accused FIFA for, “commandeered the willing South African government to be able to rearrange the country to make it more football and corporation-friendly.” (Source) Sports writer Geoffrey York has remarked that FIFA had enjoyed “a virtual monopoly over marketing, licensing and almost all economic activity anywhere near the tournament’s 10 stadiums.” According to his report, a statue of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Square which falls under the “exclusive zones” was blocked by a huge tent erected by Sony. (Source) The Japanese electronics giant was one of the official “partners” of FIFA in the event along with other well-known MNCs like Adidas, Visa, Emirates, Coca-Cola and Hyundai-Kia Motors – after paying a cost of around $125 million each to FIFA. When the World Cup began, Sony confiscated Nelson Mandela Square and arrogantly disgraced one of the most respected people in the world. A shameless South African government turned a blind eye to the humiliation of the icon of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.

FIFA has ensured to grab all economic advantage from the event. Even local food vendors were not spared. They were literally shunted off from vending food outside the stadiums because the stipulated fee for vending was simply beyond their reach and thus they couldn’t qualify for an “official” status which will permit them to vend in the “exclusive zones”. FIFA’s massive business enterprise has pushed the ordinary South Africans to the sidelines and shattered all their hopes to economically benefit from the World Cup. Only a small elite grouping of private entities representing South African construction companies and politically connected entrepreneurs was able to make a good profit from the event.

An Amnesty International report shows that to “clean up” the country’s image for the media and tourists, the South Africa police had evicted thousand of homeless people from the “exclusive zones” around football stadiums, cleared the streets and township slums and forced a large number of impoverished people to live in temporary camps. In Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town poor shack dwellers has been hounded from their homes, arrested and detained without hearing. Durban’s Cato Crest township was gutted by a suspicious fire in April. In Mbombela, the host city of Mpumalanga province, schools were displaced in the construction process of the Mbombela Stadium and at least two politicians were assassinated for criticizing World Cup contracts. In Durban, an official decision put a ceiling on fishermen who made their livelihoods by fishing from the piers because authorities found them “too dirty to fish there”. To facilitate the smooth passing of the grand event, the South African government had engaged more than 40,000 extra police and introduced special courts only to deal with World Cup matters. The kangaroo courts had operated till late in the night and delivered swift and often harsh sentences – many of them highly controversial. According to a media report, a cell phone thief was jailed for five years and hotel staffs were jailed for three years for stealing! (Source) How much “honor and pride” then will these ordinary masses really feel for hosting one of the greatest World Cups in history? Keeping in mind the harsh problems of economic and social disparities that still exist in the country, the distorted promises of the South African government will not take long to fade away.

This artificial glitz has virtually misted up another basic issue – development of football in South Africa. Social scientist and football enthusiast Andrew Guest has found that, “The trope of African soccer is the barefoot child playing on a dirt field with a rag ball—and in my previous experiences in Africa that scenario has been harder to avoid than to find. But in the greater Johannesburg megalopolis circa 2010 the grass roots game seems conspicuously absent from anywhere other than FIFA propaganda.” “In the poorer parts of Soweto,” Andrew Guest continues, “there seemed to be children on every street playing football, on every hill making improvised slides, in every corner crafting paper airplanes from scraps.” He then pertinently asks, “Will this World Cup help those children? Probably not.” In the same article, Guest has also expressed his deep concern about FIFA’s “20 Centers for 2010” initiative which was put up on official billboards all over South Africa. He watchfully reports, “as far as I can tell (and as far as anyone has been able to tell me), only one center has been opened and only five others are identified in any plans. So what about the other 14 promised to the continent? Since the slogan specifically says ‘for 2010’ I hope they show up in the next 6 months – but I fear yet another case of grass roots development looking better in promotions than in practice.” (Source) Only time can tell if all these concerns about the “ephemeral exercise in myth-making” expressed by critics will be proven right or not.

Instead of improving the standards of the game, heavyweights FIFA bosses are more attentive about the three P’s: politics, power and profit. For them, the game of football is valueless unless looked through the prism of money. The mega event of World Cup also signifies only one thing to them. Its all about making mega money. In June 2009 when Spain’s unemployment rate was 18 percent, Spanish club Real Madrid, the world's richest football club, bought Portugal midfielder Cristiano Ronaldo for a record $130 million. The same club has also bought the Brazilian icon Kaka for $91 million. French striker Thierry Henry makes $24 million a year from the other famed Spanish club FC Barcelona. Barcelona also pays $20 million to Lionel Messi of Argentina. (Source) All these big money drawing stars became damp squib in the tournament. This outcome was not totally surprising. Being squeezed out the most by the ever demanding professional club football, the greatly talented players were already burnt out when they arrived to play the World Cup. Are the FIFA bosses willing to introspect why a World Cup final has to be stained with countess fouls – thirteen yellows and one red? Why kicking at ankles, pulling shirts, and jostling opposing players became the game strategy of a World Cup finalist team?

Football is undeniably a genuine people’s game, played daily by millions around the world. It is a game full of magical moments of splendor, surprise and disappointment which offers exhilarating exhibition of human skill. It is also a great social equalizer with an incredible potential to bring together people of all race, creed and class. Sadly, we now have a situation that is compelling us to leave aside the real beauty and delight of the game and discuss a chain of ugly aspects which are gravely threatening its basic essence. Today there is an urgent need to make the elitist coterie of FIFA aware about the very purpose of why they are there. It is not for making hollow claims about “Football for Hope”. It is also not for counting profit money. They are there only to protect and maintain the beauty of the vigorous and lively game called football.

Image: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
Image Courtesy: