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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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear