South Africa’s football lesson
By Simon Kuper
Published: October 30 2010 00:31 | Last updated: October 30 2010 00:31
On Sunday Dilma Rousseff will probably be voted president of Brazil. Soon afterwards she should get on her plane and visit the poor South African town of Nelspruit. There she will see the football stadium built for the recent World Cup. It’s barely played in any more, and isn’t much use to the surrounding slum-dwellers. From Nelspruit Rousseff can fly to Cape Town and view the magnificent new stadium beside the Atlantic. That one’s now redundant too. The company supposed to operate it for 30 years just pulled out of the deal, largely because Cape Town doesn’t need another stadium.
Then Rousseff can fly home and revise plans for what should be the most high-profile event of her reign: Brazil’s World Cup of 2014. Brazil can learn from South Africa’s mistakes. So can the countries bidding to host the World Cups of 2018 and 2022. (The winners will be chosen on December 2, unless scandals delay the vote.) Hosts need to understand what a World Cup is: a party. It leaves nothing behind except a hangover, good memories and a large bill.
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Every host of a World Cup or Olympics ritually claims that the tournament will be “an economic bonanza”. South Africa said this nonstop, and Orlando Silva Jr, Brazil’s charming sports minister, made the usual noises when I caught him over breakfast in Johannesburg during the last World Cup. “I guess that the Cup has been a stimulus for developing infrastructure here, and we will follow the same path in Brazil,” he said, in blithe defiance of the pile of academic studies that find no economic benefit from sports tournaments.
Brazil is building airports, roads and ports for 2014. These are fine things, but they shouldn’t be pegged to a World Cup. If you need a new airport, build it. If you only need a new airport for four football matches, don’t build it. The demands of a football tournament are seldom those of daily life.
Brazilian officials should know this already. One chilly winter’s Saturday in Johannesburg this June, dozens of them came to a workshop where South African officials told them about hosting – about, as one South African said, “some of our cuts and bruises”.
The Brazilians were mostly cheery, as befits officials making a “study visit” to a World Cup. But they heard chilling things. Perhaps the most chilling came from a woman whom I won’t name, to keep her out of trouble. She’s a senior official for Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg.
She told the Brazilians how, in early 2009, she had reviewed the projected economic boost the tournament would bring her province. She looked for numbers – and found almost nothing.
South Africa had been saying the tournament would increase tourism, create jobs, build useful infrastructure, etc. But she realised: “It wasn’t going to be giving us the benefits that we had told the country the World Cup was going to give us.” True, Johannesburg’s creaky transport links would improve a bit, but “it wasn’t as much as we had thought”. And so, over a year before kickoff, Gauteng quietly binned hopes of economic bonanza. Somehow the officials forgot to tell the South African people, but then running a province keeps you busy. In the event, predictably, the tournament went well over budget, and attracted few big-spending visitors. I recently got an e-mail from an official at one South African university, which had reserved 92,000 “bed-nights” for football visitors. Shortly before the tournament began, he says, Fifa’s booking agency returned 91,000 nights unused. “We are still trying to sell off the additional linen we had to purchase,” the official complains. If sports economists are right, the Cup won’t boost future tourism and foreign investment in South Africa either.
Brazil should enjoy its World Cup. However, it should view it strictly as a party. A party is fun, but costs money. Nobody says, “I’ll have a birthday party, and I’ll turn a big profit.” Economically, the tournament will entail transfers from some Brazilians to others: from taxpayers to football clubs, which will get shiny new stadiums, and from women (generally not so keen on football) to men (more keen). The tournament could also be a nice little earner for anyone who happens to own a stadium-building company. It won’t do much for slum-dwellers.
Brazil needs to keep costs down. At least it hasn’t copied South Africa’s strategy of rolling over and giving Fifa anything it wants. One Brazilian aide told me about tough negotiations with the global football authority. Nor does Brazil appear as naive about the fabled bonanza as South Africa was. Even Silva admitted that Brazilians were fiercely debating the benefits of hosting. “OK, fine,” he said. “The good thing is that Brazilian public opinion is astute.”
It needs to be. As that woman from Gauteng told her visitors: “There are a lot of mistakes we made that you hopefully won’t make.” Brazil should remember the empty stadium beside the Nelspruit slums, and that unused mountain of university linen.