World Cup hounded by moral dilemma

A demonstrator waves a Brazilian flag during a protest in Sao Paulo during last year's Confederations Cup. More protests are expected in Brazil during the World Cup. (Nelson Antoine/AP)

Well, this will be a test.

Forever, those who run the big business of sport, and especially those who stage its greatest spectacles, have benefited from one great truth: The narcotic power of the events is so profound, the pleasure they deliver so potent, that every time the torch is lit or the ball is kicked, the slate is wiped clean.

But the breeze has shifted of late.

In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has become rich and powerful by exploiting the rah-rah appeal of unpaid student athletes, finds itself in court right now, defending the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, which has been approaching for years like a thunderstorm rolling across the prairies. Win or lose, the notion that the NCAA serves a calling higher than commerce has been thoroughly discredited. The discussion has shifted to how much—not whether—college athletes should be compensated in comparison to the wealth they create for others.

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The International Olympic Committee, which despite all sorts of scandals, managed to maintain its self-created place as a kind of alternate, unelected, global government, seems finally to have run out of suckers. It’s no secret that the Games have become so bloated, so problematic, such a security risk, so certain to breed white elephants, that they are a terrible place to invest public money. (The best thing you can say for them is that they can be used as cover to fund projects that are actually needed, but that can’t inspire the necessary political will….) But all of the hand-wringing and debate, no matter what the circumstances, tend to evaporate during the Opening Ceremony, and even long after the circus leaves town the memories are so pleasant that almost no one looks back and does the math.

Now, though, the hosting rights to the 2022 Winter Games are up for grabs, and it has been reduced to a two-horse race—China and Kazakhstan are the only remaining bidders, precisely because neither country has to trouble itself with the messy business of dissent. (Consider that even the people of Norway, who love and live winter sports more than anyone, and who staged the most perfect of all modern Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994, have cold feet.)

All of that, though, pales when compared to the battle of heart versus head that begins in Brazil this week with the World Cup.

What does soccer mean in Brazil? There’s no point of comparison, really, unless you think about hockey and Canada, erase all of the other sports that matter here, apply a similar sense of manifest destiny not just about winning internationally, but about being keepers of the game’s aesthetics, and then wrap all of that around something that is the singular passion not just of Brazilians, but of the entire globe minus a few barren sections of North America.

The World Cup returning for the first time since 1950 to the country that has won it more than any other is as potent a mix of sport and culture and tribalism as you’re ever going to find. Their DNA dictates that Brazilians are going to be onside.

Except that there is the extraordinary cost to stage the tournament in a country that has enormous disparities in wealth and which faces myriad social and economic challenges (combined, quite unbelievably, with the cost of staging a Summer Olympic Games just two years hence…). Even in a place so soccer mad, there’s no real need for many of those new stadiums. Hence the strikes, the rioting, and the imposition of a quasi-police state.

Meanwhile, Sepp Blatter and the other fine folks at FIFA—who have come to make the IOC look like pikers when it comes to corruption—are embroiled in myriad scandals involving match-fixing and Qatar’s obviously rigged bid for the 2022 World Cup, where stadiums are being built by slave labour so that soccer can be played in 50-degree temperatures in a place that has no real history in the game. (If you haven’t done so already, check out John Oliver’s hilarious and bang-on take:)

In other words, Brazil 2014 is a perfect storm: a World Cup played in a place where it matters more than anywhere else, where the economics of staging it couldn’t seem any more grotesque, in the service of an organization that is cartoonishly bad.

And then the games begin….

You live through a few of these, and you get a sense of what’s coming next. You remember Greece in 2004, where the concrete was still wet, where the organization was in chaos, where the country was about to bankrupt itself, and then everyone swooned as the Olympics came home. You recall South Africa in 2010, where there was no way they were going to get their act together, where the criminals would take over, where the money spent on stadiums could certainly have been put to better use, and other than those damn vuvuzelas, it was a magnificent show. You remember the tawdry commercialism of Atlanta in 1996… well, Muhammad Ali aside, that one never really did lift off.

Now prepare to be swept away by the beautiful game, played against postcard backdrops in a setting that reflects the sport’s history, its romance, its poetry.

And prepare to leave your conscience at the door.

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