When we look back on it from the vantage of a generation, we will see this era as the twilight of the Grand Sports Tournament Adventure.
The World Cup in Brazil begins in 10 days. On the ground, it’s shaping up as a chaotic mess. Nothing is ready. A great deal that was promised has been abandoned. Everyone’s on strike.
These things usually begin heralded by portents of doom. Then they somehow hold it all together with gaffer tape and a smile. Maybe this, finally, is the tournament that spirals into logistical disaster.
In either case, it cleaves to the familiar recent pattern – from South Africa to Poland/Ukraine to Sochi. The pattern is “over-promise, under-deliver.”
I remember driving half the length of Poland on a jammed two-lane road trying to get to a game in Lviv, Ukraine, during Euro 2012. It took 10 hours. That drive was my own personal Long March.
As we inched along for hundreds of kilometres, we were shadowed alongside by the unfinished spine of a promised superhighway that never got anywhere near completion. Every once in a while, we’d pass a cow tied to a phone pole like the family dog.
As I lost my mind at the wheel, I envied those cows their repose.
Brazil sounds a lot worse.
Local soccer legend Ronaldo has already apologized in advance for what’s become a deeply unpopular boondoggle.
“I had hoped everything would work out – even at the last minute,” he told a Sao Paolo newspaper last week. “It’s a shame. I feel appalled.”
This, of course, didn’t stop him from diving into the trough. Ronaldo has reportedly rented his Rio apartment to FIFA president Sepp Blatter for a staggering $650,000 (U.S.) over the five-week duration of the tournament.
FIFA commandeers entire luxury hotels for their officials. Why the boss needs a pied-à-terre as well is an open question. Perhaps it’s to hide.
Over the weekend, FIFA was stung by two exposes. The first, in the New York Times describes a match-fixing scandal leading up to the last World Cup that was so baldly transparent, it plays out like farce. This has become so common, it’s lost the ability to shock. Nobody cares about match-fixing any more, because there is an expiry date on outrage. At some point, one grows weary.
The second – and more substantial – report comes in the Times of London. It has obtained a vast treasure of documents that lead back to the man who headed Qatar’s successful bid to obtain the 2022 World Cup. According to the Times, that gentleman, Mohamed bin Hammam, paid out $5-million in bribes to win support among FIFA delegates.
Everybody (and by ‘everybody,’ I mean ‘England’) has rushed to the shed and collected their pitchforks and now they’re all huddled on the road wondering, ‘Where exactly is the castle we’re meant to storm?’
There’s no castle. FIFA doesn’t care that you care. Every time one of these storms hit – and there have been many – they lash themselves to the main mast and wait for people to lose interest. This one will peter out before a ball is first kicked in anger on June 12.
However, there are growing signs that while this won’t end now, it will end soon. The key in this – and everything – is money. The myth of big-even profitability is long dead. Sochi’s $50-billion price tag buried it.
Eventually, countries will clue in to the fact that the billions spent on these vast public-relations exercises is money spent contrary to its own purpose.
At this point, no one watches a World Cup or an Olympics and thinks, ‘That’s where I’d like to go on vacation. The place where they’re killing guest workers like the Pharaohs in order to get everything built on time.’
The IOC is now alarmingly confronting this problem. In a month’s time, they will narrow the field to three competing host cities for the 2022 Winter Games. It’ll be a short meeting, since there are only three cities in contention.
Munich, St. Moritz, Stockholm and Krakow are already out because locals aborted the bids in referendums. Lviv – oh, God, Lviv – is out because there’s the matter of a small war complicating things.
That leaves Oslo, Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan in the running. Oslo is the obvious choice, but they haven’t had their referendum yet. Apparently, Kazakhstan – run by a guy who created a national holiday on his own birthday – is the voters’ default choice. That sounds promising.
People have now clued in to the fact that there is no advantage to hosting one of these masochistic endeavours, not even from the standpoint of national pride. Putting your hand up as a host country is an invitation to a months-long savaging in the global press.
The only thing you can be sure of is winding up with a bunch of stadiums you didn’t want or need in the first place.
This con job is still staggering forward, for now. But as soon as a critical mass of governments figure out what the guy in the street has already divined, it will end.
And when that happens, we will have to reimagine how to stage the biggest shows in the world.