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Will Brazil 2014 be the last time the football world cup matters?

International football could be the purest of competitions, but the dominance of the global club brands, the bloated finals tournament and lack of surprise factor together with distaste for FIFA mean that it's increasingly becoming irrelevant.

This might be the last time the World Cup matters. Photo: Getty

So England will be at next summer’s football World Cup finals tournament in Brazil. It’s possible this might be the last time it matters.

There’s a rich vein to be tapped into when football’s ultimate prize is juxtaposed with Brazil, a country with a romantic tradition in the game and one whose people have a passionate attachment, and no doubt the marketing machine will make the most of it. But the world is changing and it’s not inconceivable that Brazil 2014 will go down in history as The Last World Cup.

For now, qualification matters. It matters for all the reasons to do with sporting achievement and prestige, and it also matters for hard business reasons. The Football Association guaranteed £8m in prize money for making the finals. If the team reaches the quarter-finals, not an unrealistic expectation, it gets £16m. If anyone at the FA is relying on the £26.5m you get for winning the trophy, they may want to seek some advice. But there’s more money to be made.

World Cup-related merchandising could bring in £10m. Nike reckons it can sell more than one million England shirts. And the FA will be looking to build on the £50m a year it makes from its commercial partnerships. Qualification is good for business. When England failed to make the finals of Euro 2008, the British Retail Consortium estimated the economy lost £600m. Such estimates do not usually stand up to forensic analysis – too many assumptions – but what’s more certain is that the FA loses sponsors and income if the team does not succeed.

After England’s dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup finals, major partners Nationwide and National Express opted not to renew their deals. It took the FA six months to sign Vauxhall as a replacement, during which time it missed out on a potential £3m.

So in the short term, some money will be made and Team England will still carry some clout – despite slipping below Switzerland in the FIFA world rankings. But longer term, the World Cup may be losing its shine.

The staging of a big sporting event always prompts questions about the cost and about who benefits. It’s now estimated that over $3bn of public funds will be spent by Brazil to stage the tournament. Last summer’s huge protests around the Confederations Cup tournament, used as a dry run for next summer’s main event, brought public protest to international attention – and in so doing destroyed the myth that Brazilians were so seduced by football they would stand for anything.

Whenever a major sporting tournament is staged these days, there’s always a debate about who benefits. Remember all that stuff about legacy and the London Olympics? That was just one example of how massive public contribution to what is ultimately private profit must be defended to the host population. Potential benefits have to be played up as much as possible, which leads to increasingly wild claims that are believed by decreasing numbers of people.

Public benefits can only be measured longer-term. Ken Livingston recognised this when he saw that only an event such as the Olympics would leverage the kind of funding needed to clean up the deeply polluted land around Stratford. But in the short term, people see public subsidy helping to generate enormous profits for the few. Funny, isn’t it, how the right never question the role of the state in these circumstances?

From Brazil 2014, it is estimated that FIFA – a charitable body based in Switzerland – will earn $5bn. In 2012, the organisation reported a profit of $89m, with reserves totaling $1.378bn. To win the right to stage the finals, countries must agree to FIFA’s stipulations on tax. And they are that it pays no tax whatsoever. Conservative estimates are that this exemption will see Brazil’s Internal Revenue Service lose out on $248.7m. Tax expert Han Kogels told CNN: “I was (and still am) not aware of any other international commercial sport event being subsidised through full tax exemption at the cost of other taxpayers.”

The distaste for the way FIFA conducts itself goes deeper when the controversies over the bidding process that saw the tournament awarded to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 are factored in. The process is mired in allegations of corruption. Top that off with the serious human rights issues raised over the treatment of workers in Qatar.

If the World Cup business seems a long way from the feel-good factor, so too does the football itself. Once, the tournament was seen as the chance for the world’s best to compete. Now, with a bloated tournament featuring 32 teams, the early stages don’t have the same magic. World Cups also used to throw up surprises, new players, new tactics. Now, the players and the coaches and the tactics are well-known in advance – familiarity and contempt nuzzle up alongside one another.

International football could be the purest of competitions. On this stage, you can’t buy in talent, you have to work with what you have – something that appeals to sporting pursists. Despite flurries of controversy over national eligibility, that fact remains. And yet it is club football that commands attention, and the big club brand names that have the global appeal. For many fans, it’s club before country every time, and the growth of the global club brands does not look like slowing. Nor does the global popularity of a Premier League in which players from so many nations are represented.

Put the aggressive growth of the Premier League, the dominance of the global club brands, the bloated finals tournament and lack of surprise factor together with distaste for FIFA and for the whole process of staging the finals together and you can begin to see a future in which the World Cup is increasingly irrelevant. And how then will the FA generate its money?