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.

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?

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

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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