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.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump