World Cups serve a greater purpose when they shine a light on social injustice

 

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There is much to dislike in the way World Cups are put together: the opaque process by which host countries are chosen, the vast outlays required to stage the planet’s biggest sporting event, and of course Fifa, the corrupt, despotic and appallingly run organisation apparently responsible to no one, that presides over the whole thing.

Brazil, where the 2014 tournament kicks off on Thursday, is a perfect case in point. More than $12bn has been lavished on the event – a fair share of which has almost certainly lined undeserving pockets – in a country where 16 million people, one in 12 of the population, live on $1 a day or less. This distortion has sunk into the consciousness even of a nation besotted with the game as few others, to the point that support for playing host, according to the polls, has dropped to below 50 per cent of Brazilians. In a further sign of the discontent, a strike by Sao Paulo metro employees has been threatening to disrupt the opening game.

A perfect argument, many would claim, for holding the World Cup in the same place, or in a country that already has the stadiums and infrastructure to handle the event. But that would in practice confine the event to the Americas or the established football powers of Europe, hardly a recipe for extending the frontiers of a sport bent on global conquest. It would also remove one indisputable benefit of the present imperfect system, whereby a spotlight, however brief, is shone on parts of the world that otherwise would not get it, and on aspects of a host country that usually pass unnoticed.

Among the latter, this time around, has been Brazil’s predilection for leaving everything to the eleventh hour and beyond. A more important overlooked reality now under scrutiny is the miserable underside of Rio de Janeiro, the favelas, or shanty towns, that exist in plain sight of the city’s opulent playgrounds that have shaped its image as a kind of paradise.

Yesterday, a group of England’s millionaire players and FA officials were taking time off from golf and the pool to visit the Rocinha favela, Rio’s largest, which is visible from their beachside hotel. The trip is part of a day of “engaging with the local community” (from which the team are likely to be kept at a safe distance by draconian security during the rest of their sojourn). Given the temporary sanitisation by the military of the shanty towns – in normal times hotbeds of violence and drug trading outside the control of the police – the exercise may be less than meets the eye. But if the visit helps bring two utterly different worlds a little closer, a purpose will have been served.

And Brazil 2014 should be only a start. Eight full years before it is due to be held, the spotlight is blazing so bright on the 2022 competition currently scheduled for Qatar that it may force the venue to be changed. The controversy surrounds not only the alleged corruption involved in the bizarre award by Fifa in the first place to the tiny, scorching hot Gulf emirate, but also Qatar’s harsh treatment of foreign contract and domestic workers, seen by many as virtual slave labour in the richest per capita state on earth. If football’s showcase event helps bring about change there, Fifa’s ludicrous choice may yet bring about some good.

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