The football World Cup concludes this weekend, in a spanking new Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The stadium’s latest renovation cost half a billion dollars, which is no small sum anywhere, but particularly not in Brazil. In fact, the stadium has been renovated three times since 2000; and may have to be renovated again before it hosts the opening ceremony of the Olympics two years from now. It must be particularly tragic, therefore, for Brazilians that the national team – A Seleção, or “the selection” – did not even get to play in the new stadium once. The only game they could have played there, given their draw, was the final. This may not have struck optimistic Cariocas as a problem at the beginning of the tournament. They now know better. The collective national psychological damage of A Seleção’s 1-7 humiliation by the Germans will not be easily erased. More than one of the 58,000 spectators who saw Brazil crash out in Belo Horizonte, and more than one of the millions of Brazilians watching horrified nationwide, will have wondered: what terrible karmic payoff is this for a country that’s just spent $ 11.3 billion on a World Cup?
Remember: big sporting events like a World Cup or an Olympics do not pay for themselves. The boost they give to tourism is minimal. The 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany, according to one detailed study, generated additional spending by tourists worth 0.28 per cent of that spent by other visitors to Germany that year. And the stadiums are frequently ruins afterwards. At least in Brazil, some teams – like Atletico Mineiro or Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte – might benefit from the new stadiums. In South Africa, which hosted the 2010 World Cup, the vast snazzy stadiums built then play host to teams who at best have an audience of 10,000 when they play. Greece, which hosted the 2004 Olympics, has an even sorrier story to tell. The Olympic Village is a mouldering, unsafe, litter-strewn wreck. Vast stadiums set up for table tennis or baseball are not exactly what Greece’s sports people need. The worst part, of course, is that the Greeks are still paying for it; the Olympics set off a debt-fuelled spending binge that nearly led them to bring down the euro. And it is not the case that mega sporting events are a purely private-sector endeavour. They never are. Taxpayers always pay. FIFA, the organising body of world soccer, is currently a hate-figure in Brazil; it is justly seen as landing up, demanding ever more elaborate preparations, and then making off with the proceeds. The organisation has protested that it itself foot the $ 2 billion bill for operational costs. But Brazilian taxpayers will know better than to look only at that figure. In South Africa, FIFA made $ 3.7 billion excluding ticket sales, on an investment of $ 1.3 billion. A pretty good return. Meanwhile, the South Africans are still working out exactly how much the Cup slowed down economic growth. Delhi residents can relate, at least slightly. The big white elephants of the scandal-ridden Commonwealth Games of 2010 are largely unused, and the Games itself were quickly forgotten.
The only real reasons to host such events are non-economic. They are showpieces, meant to demonstrate national pride and achievement. China in 2008 declared it thought itself a superpower; Britain in 2012 that it still believed it was cool. They make countries feel better about themselves. Germans, after the 2006 Cup, realised it was all right to wave their flag in public again. But that may not always happen. Rio’s Maracanã was already a symbol of suffering to Brazilians; after they struggled to host the 1950 Cup, they were defeated there by tiny Uruguay, in an event so traumatic it has its own name in collective memory, the Maracanazo. Things just got even worse. If India ever is blinded enough by national ambition to demand to host, say, the Olympics, the recollection of Brazil 2014 should be enough to deter it.