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
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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