In just three days' time the greatest sporting show on earth begins in South Africa, where 32 nations have assembled to contest the 19th football World Cup. But it will be the first finals of the modern era to take place in a world gripped by recession, one that threatens to stymie the much-heralded benefits of bringing the event to African soil for the first time ever.
What effect will the global financial climate have on the competition, one that has cost South Africa more than £3.5bn to prepare for, and its participants around the globe? The estimates of the numbers of supporters arriving in the country has had to be revised downwards, and tickets are still on sale. The teams, meanwhile, have been attacked for the rewards they will reap if successful and the luxury accommodation they are staying in. But there are signs that the huge and enduring appeal of the tournament, especially on TV – it will be the most-watched sporting event ever – will ensure that the World Cup will after all prove a relative economic success, and timely boost, both to the people of South Africa and to businesses back in the UK.
Six games are sold out – but 58 of them aren't
Fifa yesterday released another batch of tickets with just six of the tournament's 64 games completely sold out. World football's governing body maintains that overall sales compare favourably to previous tournaments, and the numbers remaining are relatively small per game – a few thousand for grounds holding between 40,000 and 90,000 spectators – including 289 seats with obstructed views for England's first match, against the USA on Saturday. "We are very happy with the results," Fifa secretary general Jérôme Valcke said. But it is notable how many of the remaining tickets are the most expensive, those aimed at the corporate sector. There are nearly 40,000, or a stadium-full, of them, while category one tickets, the next most costly, are also available for most games.
Italian minister's anger at players' victory windfalls
As cutbacks bite across Europe, the idea of already über-wealthy footballers collecting further large sums for lifting the World Cup has not been well received in some countries, notably Italy. The complicatedly titled Minister for Legislative Simplification, Roberto Calderoli, has called on the Azzurri squad to "partake in the sacrifices of Italians to tackle the [financial] crisis". It's an appeal that has not gone down well with the players, who are expected to receive around £200,000 per man if they win the World Cup. "We truly are a ridiculous country," said Fabio Cannavaro, the captain. The Spanish national federation has also come in for criticism with its players, who are among the favourites, set to earn £500,000 per man for victory. Perhaps they could take a lesson from Germany, who are expected to donate a sizeable chunk of any winnings to the Robert Enke Foundation, set up in memory of their former goalkeeper who committed suicide last year.
Numbers way down, but might fans stay longer?
The numbers of tourists arriving in South Africa will peak next week, but it is far fewer than was originally estimated and nearly two-thirds less than the one million supporters who flocked to the finals in Germany four years ago. The recession, with the cost of flights and hotels flagged as a telling factor, is advanced as the main reason for the fall, but fears over security are also cited. The expected number is 373,000, more than 100,000 down on the forecast in 2008 before the recession gripped. 100,000 fans are expected to travel from the UK, 40,000 from Germany and 20,000 from Holland, all much lower figures than organisers hoped. However, a report from the accountants Grant Thornton predicts supporters who do go will stay for longer and spend more. In the circumstances, and given the negative publicity over crime, the figures are not bad, especially when compared to the 250,000 foreign fans who went to the 2002 finals in South Korea and Japan.
Spanish players slum it on a university campus
Actually winning the World Cup would remove much of the stigma of collecting a large bonus, but residing in five-star resorts with panoramic views of the Indian Ocean before a ball has been kicked is a more immediate way of angering those cutting their cloth back home. France's choice of base for the competition – the Pezula Resort in the high-end holiday town of Knysa – has drawn stinging criticism from a junior sports minister, who says the squad should have shown some "decency". The minister, Rama Yade, cited Spain as the example to follow, with the European champions basing themselves on the campus of the North-West University in Potchefstroom. "If the results do not meet our expectations, the [French] federation will have to account for this," she said.
A £1.5bn bonanza– but £200m less than last time
As with television, many British – or should that be English – retailers are budgeting for a welcome World Cup surge, although it is estimated to add up to some £200m less than the £1.5bn increase reaped from Germany 2006. Unlike ITV, though, retail income is part-reliant on England's success, or otherwise, on the pitch. There have been the usual flurry of claims of TV's flying off the shelves (one retailer is trumpeting a 50 per cent rise) but they are not expected to come close to matching the returns of four years ago with much of the new technology still at the expensive end of the market, especially in a time of spending restraint. Not so when it comes to that football viewing staple, beer, with alcohol sales set to grow by £164m, with the major supermarkets, as ever, the main benefactors.
Who cares who wins when the money's rolling in?
The World Cup could not have offered a more timely fillip for ITV. The company may suffer the usual ratings drubbing when it goes head-to-head with the BBC in later rounds, but that will matter little given industry forecasts that they may better their £103m income from the last World Cup in Germany. They firmed up their programme sponsorship more than a year ago and a spokesperson described the demand for advertising space during games as "huge". The company are expected to revise their growth forecasts of last month upwards on the back of the World Cup. In the broadcasting split negotiated with the BBC, ITV have secured the first two England games with the first against the US in Saturday prime time. Ad bookings on ITV1 for this month are up by 30 per cent on last year – ably demonstrating the World Cup's appeal regardless of broader financial constraints.
But at least the governing body will be quids in
whatever the next month holds for players, coaches, supporters, hoteliers and businesses here and in South Africa, one thing is certain: Sepp Blatter will fly back to Fifa's headquarters in Zurich with a very large cheque in his back pocket.
The governing body may have raised the prize money for the tournament to £400m, a recession-defying 60 per cent increase on four years ago, with the winning federation receiving £20m, but that comes out of an expected record return.
It is poised to be the most lucrative sporting event ever staged, collecting £2.15bn in broadcasting and marketing revenue. Sportcal, a market analyst, puts the increase in sponsorship on Germany 2006 at 80 per cent. No wonder Mr Blatter, Fifa's president, is smiling all the way to a Swiss bank.
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