The eyes of the football world — or the soccer world, for largely left-out American fans — are now on Russia, where the quadrennial FIFA World Cup is being held. It's a spectacle of pomp and Olympic-like circumstance during which countries ostensibly and temporarily put aside politics to join in the feel-good practice of sport.
But being as the World Cup takes place in the real world and given the fact that the tournament unavoidably and proudly pits country against country on the pitch, it's impossible to separate politics and the political from soccer and all those feel-good vibes at the World Cup.
In the age-old struggle to keep politics separated from sports, politics is still undefeated.
"Sport is and always has been political," says Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the book "Soccernomics." "I've never understood why people try to deny this fundamental truth."
In "Soccernomics," Szymanski and co-author Simon Kuper suggest that FIFA — the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body of the sport — may pick World Cup hosts in part by which country can best keep protesters and other politically minded party poopers from spoiling things. The last World Cup, in football-frenetic Brazil in 2014, was marked by crowds protesting the exorbitant price tag of hosting the cup. The country reportedly shelled out more than $11 billion in infrastructure costs, much of it on stadiums.
Money, the ever-present bedfellow of politics and politicians everywhere, is never far from front and center when it comes to the World Cup. Countries from Qatar (which will host the 2022 World Cup) to an unbeatable North American trio of the U.S., Mexico and Canada (2026) line up to spend billions for the right to roll out the red carpet. Presidents heave political power behind their countries' efforts, hawking all sorts of benefits, economic and otherwise, to bring the football/soccer tournament to their shores.
Szymanski says the economic impact of the World Cup can be broken down into three categories:
- the building of great soccer stadiums, which can employ thousands and generate assorted other wealth;
- money from people who show up to spend at the cup, on tickets, hotel rooms, restaurants and the like;
- a broader, much-harder-to-quantify public relations/marketing effect, where people see the country in a (hopefully) positive light, perhaps spurring worldwide respect, tourism and investment in the country.
But problems exist with finding true, lasting economic impact with all of those inputs. Building stadiums and other infrastructure, for example, can provide jobs, but they're temporary. People spend money on the cup and surrounding events, certainly, but it may be diverted from elsewhere in the host cities. The PR effect may be real, but the billions spent on the cup might be better used in a more effective PR campaign.
So whether any of that wealth actually is produced, or whether it offsets the crazy-high costs that countries absorb to play host to the tournament has been the subject of many academic studies. The results may shock you.
Experts say that politicians who promise a windfall exaggerate. Sometimes a lot.
"The data tells us that the economic impact is negligible. It might be slightly positive. It might be slightly negative. But this comes up again and again in published studies. It's a pretty broad consensus," Szymanski says.
The 21st cup in Russia has been reported to be the most expensive ever, costing some $14.2 billion. But Russia says — to some, amazingly — that it will generate nearly $31 billion.