The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil: What hosting mega-events mean for emerging middle powers

Photo © Matshaba Mothiane/ SAIIA
The 'United Buddy Bears', a 141-piece exhibition on Copacabana beach which aims to spread the message of tolerance during the World Cup.

Since China hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympics there has been a marked increase in the active bidding and subsequent hosting of global mega-events by countries considered ‘rising’ in international affairs. In 2010 the Commonwealth Games was hosted in India, the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the World Expo in China.

Fast forward to 2014 and Russia held the Sochi Winter Olympics, while Brazil is set to host the upcomming 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

There is clearly interest amongst rising powers in the potential reputational gains that hosting the world in one’s own ‘household’ can bring.

As Fareed Zakaria’s notion of ‘the rise of the rest’ captures, previously side-lined countries are increasingly engaging in unconventional spaces following in the path of their growing influence in economic and global political circles. In many ways the ability to bid for and subsequently host major events is symbolic, showcasing a nation’s development achievements and recognising its growing authority in global affairs.

When the city of Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Olympic Games bid over the counter-bids from Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo the previous Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, emotionally announced: “Today, Brazil became a citizen of the world; we proved that we have the competence to hold the Olympics”. More recently BBC reported Brazil’s deputy sports minister, Luis Fernandes, as stating “It’s not a good plan to try to limit the right to host major sporting events in the world to a small group of rich countries…that doesn’t reflect the reality of the world anymore in the 21st Century.”

These global aspirations reflect the ‘middle power’ status of these nations, i.e. countries who utilise multilateral processes and consensus building as the most efficient mode of engaging in global affairs as they are still unable to unilaterally challenge traditional global powers with their limited political and economic standing. However unlike developed middle powers (such as Australia and Canada), countries like Brazil, India and South Africa are what Maxi Schoeman calls ‘emerging middle powers’. They are on the cusp of mulitlateral processes (as seen in their collective inclusion as non-permanent members at the UN Security Council in 2011 and successful bids in hosting global events), yet they concurrently continue to face huge internal development challenges.

It is this latter aspect that has serious implications for emerging middle powers as underlined by Brazil’s experiences related to its upcoming hosting of the World Cup event.

Unlike develped host cities who already have the infrastructure and relevant facilities in place, Brazil faces a difficult choice about which infrastructure projects it ought to prioritise. Brazilian policymakers have emphasised the opportunities that hosting the event will bring for economic development, such as major upgrades in public transport (including the refurbishment of 56 airports and new subway lines) and further investments in housing and healthcare. Indeed the Brazilian government has managed to deliver on some of these promises, like the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transit system in Rio de Janeiro. However, there have also been delays, cancellations and changes made to a variety of planned infrastructure projects. For example, the famous and much anticipated bullet train from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo, which was expected to connect two of Brazil’s most populous cities, has been suspended.

Questions have also been raised about the construction of a mega-stadium in Manaus, a city located in the heart of the Amazon wilderness, and the maintenance costs post the games. Similar issues faced South Africa following its hosting of the 2010 World Cup. The 10 impressive stadiums that were built or upgraded for the games stand in stark contrast to a largely inadequate public transport network. Moreover, the expected tourism dividend and expected high occupancy rates that fuelled the rapid construction of a range of five-star hotels prior to the World Cup has not been realised in the immediate aftermath of the games.

As Brazil kicks-off the 2014 tournament on 12 June concerns remain. The former Brazillian and South African national soccer manager, Carlos Alberto Parreira, recently expressed the following critique, “We know the World Cup is about stadiums, but it’s not only about stadiums. Fans can’t live in a stadium.”

Hosting citizens from around the world can certainly harness favourable opinions of a country and bolster its international standing, but there is also pressure to address the concerns of its own constituency and related domestic priorities.

Rio de Janiero is an example of the ultimate contrast in scenery. Flanking the luxurious Copacabana beachfront are high-rise hotels and apartments, while nearby in the backdrop informal settlements – known as favelas – sprawl over the city’s steep hills. Locals point to the World Cup preparations as exacerbating existing inequalities in Brazil. The wave of public protests that started in 2013 over the rise in public transport costs, now cover wider socio-economic concerns including the rising cost of living, corruption and poor service delivery.

The 2014 World Cup is also becoming the first truly ‘social’ tournament. Fans, but also other commentators are brought closer to real-time developments through the integration of Twitter, Facebook and Google+ discussions into single platforms. The nature of wireless communication technology has overcome cost and physical access barriers spurring the rapid increase of users. In fact an infographic by the media and marketing company, IMS, estimates that 1 in 10 Brazillians use Twitter and Brazil is also home to 86 million active Facebook users.

Whilst opportunities to connect global fans reach new limits, so is the potential for civil society to maximise the user-driven possibilities of digital connection. Social media in Brazil has become a means to organise protests and for locals to make their concerns known, sometimes providing narratives that mainstream media are not covering. Carla Dauden, a Brazillian film-maker, is one of the many Brazillians who have taken to social media to communicate their concerns. Her Youtube videos titled No, I am not Going to the World Cup and Yes, you can still go to the World Cup – IF, attach a human face to the pertinent issues facing concerned local citizens about the long-term implications after the games have concluded. One challenge in particular is the dilemma of the perceived trade-off between national development priorities and the needs of international bodies, such as FIFA.

The upcoming World Cup is a clear reminder of the complexities of emerging middle power roles in the current global context. Embracing global citizenry and recognition means integrating and responding to the overlapping tasks of bearing the costs involved in capturing global attention, as well as addressing the socio-economic concerns of local citizens.

As the World Cup comes and goes the real test of whether the Brazilian government has achieved the correct balance of objectives in the eyes of the Brazilian citizenry, will be revealed when the nation goes to the polls later this year on 5 October.