It's a Lot Easier to Hold the World Cup in a Dictatorship

Lionel Messi and Ivan Rakitic during 2018 World Cup match
Argentina's Lionel Messi (stripes) and Croatia's Ivan Rakitic fight for the ball at their World Cup match on June 21, 2018. Croatia won the match 3-0 in a surprise upset. Fred Lee/Getty Images

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.

From "Soccernomics":

FIFA, too, must have learned from its Brazilian experience. It now knows that to ask a democratic country to fund white elephants is to ask for protests. Much easier to give the World Cup to dictatorships like Russia or Qatar, where protestors are discouraged. Alternatively, you could choose a host country that doesn't need to build world-class stadiums because it already has dozens. Step forward the USA for 2026.
Protesters at 2014 World Cup
Pictured are anti-World Cup demonstrators near Maracana stadium on the last day of the World Cup soccer tournament July 13, 2014, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Some protesters criticized the Brazilian government for spending money on soccer rather than improvements for education, health and housing.
Rafael Fabres/Getty Images

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:

  1. the building of great soccer stadiums, which can employ thousands and generate assorted other wealth;
  2. money from people who show up to spend at the cup, on tickets, hotel rooms, restaurants and the like;
  3. 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.


Temporary Happiness Boost

Szymanski points to another positive of hosting the World Cup, a verifiably real (if only temporary) upshot. He and others have done studies on how people in the country feel during World Cups and other international events like it. In surveys that ask whether those in host countries are happy or not, the results are almost always positive. They are happier during these mega-events.

Szymanski did such a study done around the 2012 Olympics in London. Researchers measured people's self-described happiness before and after the Olympics.


"We found actually pretty specifically that the Opening Ceremony was associated with a significant rise in reported happiness, and the closing ceremony was another peak, and that after that, happiness went back to the kind of level that it was before the games started. Which suggests that people do actually get a boost out of hosting these events," he says. "That's one of the direct effects these sort of events can have, in addition to those first three economic events."

And this is where politics, once again, rears its rarely pretty head.

"Governments, politicians know that people like to have these things. They know it's going to make them popular," Szymanski says. "But the problem there for politicians is that they don't want, usually, just to be associated with circuses. The idea that, 'Oh, I'm just putting on a show to buy your favors and popularity,' that doesn't sound good. So the way around it is they say, 'Yes, you'll have great fun, but this is a serious issue. This is actually going to bring huge economic benefits.'

"That's the false narrative that has been constructed. And nobody ever checks whether they really turn out to be true."

Economists like Szymanski check, though, and increasingly more people are realizing that hosting a World Cup is not all it's cracked up to be, money-wise. That's one of the main reasons that the three budget-conscious North American countries combined for the 2026 bid.

The happiness, yes, is worth something to host countries. Unfortunately, you can't spend happiness.