Five Questions About the World Cup

Since the World Cup opened in Brazil last week, Andrew Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith, has been busy doing media interviews about the cost of the competition and whether the host country will reap any long-term rewards.

One thing Zimbalist hasn’t done much of is watch broadcasts of the international soccer matches. “I don’t really like watching sports on TV other than baseball,” he said, in an interview in his office in Wright Hall. “I like to watch live.” Zimbalist, who has spent years studying and writing about the economics of big league sports, says he is rooting for FIFA favorite, Brazil—mainly due to the challenges that country faces in putting on the World Cup.

Here’s what else he had to say about the international soccer competition that wraps up July 13:

How is this year’s World Cup different from those of previous years?

Zimbalist: “From the standpoint of our country, there is far more interest in soccer than there was four years ago. We see that in the higher TV ratings and in greater coverage. The other difference is that it’s in Brazil, and Brazil has got all sorts of problems. The requirements from FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football) for what you have to have available as far as stadiums and facilities, they’ve made an investment of something like $15 to $20 billion. It’s enormously expensive—much too expensive, given the diminutive potential economic gain.”

How is Brazil faring during its time in the spotlight as the host country?

Zimbalist: “In Brazil you have favelas, shanytowns where there are drug gangs and violence. The government has undertaken a pacification program to clear them but it’s a powder keg to be doing that. These (sports) events are supposed to be coming out parties to make people want to travel to and invest in your country. But with the media’s attention to poverty, pollution, congestion, corruption, inefficiency and violence, the World Cup may be doing the opposite” for Brazil.

Why do countries jockey to host these games if the risks of putting them on are so great?

Zimbalist: “The problem is that there are important people in Brazil who are making money on hosting: construction companies and unions, insurance companies, lawyers, investment bankers, some hotels. So there are pockets of well-heeled individuals and companies who are making money hand over fist from the World Cup.”

Why are you cheering for Brazil?

Zimbalist: “I’m rooting for Brazil because I don’t want the country to blow up. I know when countries lose things can go haywire. I was in Chile in 1973 when the team was trying to qualify for the World Cup and the country was on the brink of civil war. Things would get calm during the matches. It was the same in the U.S. when the Mets won the series in 1969 during the years of riots in the cities. New York calmed down when the Mets started their run. Sports can command the attention of an entire country and hence, can play an important pacifying role, as long as the team wins and stays in the competition.”

What lessons are being learned from this year’s competition that will be applied to the next World Cup?

Zimbalist: “I think there are going to be some reforms in FIFA. The organization is in hot water because of corruption and match fixing. Still, if somebody has monopoly powers, it’s hard to reform. Hopefully, developing countries will be more cautious about hosting these events, more understanding of the pitfalls. The next World Cup is in 2018 in Russia. Putin will find a way to pull it off, while keeping public protest out of sight.”