After One Too Many Fouls, the World Cup Deserves a Red Card


The very first World Cup match I watched from kick-off to final whistle was the opening game of the 1978 tournament, on June 1, between West Germany, then the defending world soccer champions, and Poland, some team from Eastern Europe.

I was 10 years old. I had begged my mother to get some imported cookies and milk just for the occasion, even though I was mildly lactose intolerant and cookies were a luxury for our family. TV was still a novelty in slightly malarial Johor Baru, the Asian landmass' most southerly town. Because of the time difference between Malaysia and host Argentina, the game was televised well past my bedtime.

West Germany was clinical, antiseptic, playing a geometric game that was all sharp angles and squares. Poland wore red shirts and kicked the ball out of bounds a lot. The game ended in a scoreless draw, meaning no one scored a goal, which is the only reason some people even watch the game and increasingly these days, bet big bucks on them.

Never mind that the West Germany-Poland match lacked an ounce of flair. Never mind that no one executed a single back-heel, let alone bicycle kick. Never mind that highlights from that stodgy, stultifying game are in no danger of ever going viral on YouTube, our modern yardstick for must-see anything.

I was hooked.

The World Cup would be a part of my life every four years, and every four years I'd root for someone different. Ball movement and hip fakes trumped loyalty to any flag.

In 1978, I walked around in Dutch orange for three weeks. In 1982, I rooted for the swashbuckling Italian team. In 1986, the Danes played with the kind of imagination that left Scotland, Uruguay and West Germany flatfooted -- until they got thumped by the Spaniards in the knock-out stage, their brilliance good for only three straight matches. In 1990, I reflexively cast my lot with hosts Italy, and again in 1994. In 1998, the talented multiethnic French outclassed everyone else. In 2002, I cheered for the underdog, overachieving dual hosts, Japan and South Korea. In 2006, I picked a clearly superior France over Italy, and picked wrong. In 2010, I watched Spain play like the Brazil of our Platonic ideal, all the way to World Cup glory and showed, in the process, how games decided by a single goal could still be exhilarating.

By most measures, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil should be a dream for soccer fans around the globe, myself included. After all, the five-time World Cup champion gave us the beautiful game. This was the nation that elevated a simple sport involving feet, an open space and a round object into artistry. This is the land that birthed people like Pele and Garincha and Socrates and Ronaldo, who did things to a ball physicists and physiotherapist struggle to explain and who always seemed to perform their timeless magic, dancing between defenders and pylons, to "Mais Que Nada" on the soundtrack.

Just a few days away from the largest sporting festival in the world, the stories coming out of Brazil are not so festive. The handwringing reflects less on Brazil, but on whether the world even needs a World Cup anymore.

Eight people have already died. Instead of doing the samba, instead of celebrating a majestic legacy that's defined the world's most popular sport since its modern incarnation in the early 1900s, Brazilians are protesting in the streets.

They're angry. They're angry that their country is spending $15 billion for the World Cup while its credit rating is in the toilet and a quarter of the population is poor. In March, the average Brazilian worker earned 2,046 Brazilian real a month -- about $896. A single ticket to watch a game that's coiled into the Brazilian DNA and played on the world's greatest stage costs as much as half a month's salary. Brazilians' tax dollars are being invested, they're told, on a glittering spectacle designed to attract billions of dollars -- billions that will flow out of Brazil.

That's the sad new calculus for the beautiful game -- in fact most sports played at the highest levels of the international stage. Brazil 2014 simply follows a formula established a few months earlier, in Sochi.

At a whopping $51 billion, the recent winter games is the most expensive Olympics ever, held in a region of Russia where the average income is around $778 a month and where the national economy grew at an anemic 1.3 percent. For a few weeks, financial experts and Russian opposition politicians were calling Sochi an obscene monument to excess and corruption, until Crimea got invaded.

Let's for a moment, ignore these killjoys and review the facts through the cold hard lens of returns on investment, or ROI.

Russian taxpayers spent an average of $520 million to put on each of the 98 events in Sochi, according to Businessweek. The summer Olympics in London two years earlier spent $48.3 million per event, a bargain for 302 total events.

Brazil will spend $234 million to put on each of the 64 scheduled World Cup games.

The next World Cup, in Russia, is blowing its budget out of the water, at $20 billion, or $312 million per game. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is already getting buried under more bad press than Donald Sterling. Assuming it sticks to the current format of 32 teams playing 64 games, Qatar will cost $3 billion a match -- more if you add in the $5 million in bribes that have been traced to date. At least 990 migrant workers have died so far, building stadiums across the sand dunes of Qatar that may meet the same fate as Ozymandias' "trunkless legs of stone" once the World Cup whistles fall silent.

On June 12, the opening match between Brazil and Croatia at the brand new Arena Corinthians in Sao Paolo will likely be more entertaining than the opening match I watched 36 years ago.

The real question is whether that match -- or any other World Cup game -- is really worth all that money and all those lost and ruined lives.