By Harry Saunders
There are few events, sporting or otherwise, that capture the world’s attention in quite the same way as the FIFA World Cup. The quintessential ‘Global Game’, football has a worldwide reach that elevates it a level above any other sport, typified by an estimated global television audience of 3.5 billion people for the last World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
From Belgium to Bolivia, entire countries dream of representing their respective national teams, and laud those who do as heroes. The World Cup is the unchallenged pinnacle of the sport, and as such, for its stakeholders there is a great deal to be both gained and lost.
This is reflected in the sponsorship patterns that we see emerging around the tournament. While Sony and Emirates were happy to let their agreements expire after the 2014 World Cup, according to the Financial Times, Chinese smartphone company Vivo signed a €400 million deal to support the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. For some, the association with an event under the global microscope presents too many risks to make it worthwhile, whilst for others the brand exposure on offer is too attractive to pass up.
Ultimately, the reputation of the tournament has wide-ranging implications, both economically in terms of securing sponsorship, and also socially in terms of how it allows football teams to become national representatives on the global stage. As such, brand protection is an understandably major consideration for the World Cup’s organisers.
With that in mind, chief in the list of considerations will be the role of FIFA, football’s governing body, and the organisation with which the World Cup has been associated, for better or for worse, since 1930.
The recent history of the organisation has been turbulent to say the least. Indeed, previous President Sepp Blatter’s name became a by-word for corruption even before he was removed from his post in disgrace in 2015. His successor, Gianni Infantino, has brought what appears to be a semblance of stability and credibility to FIFA, but rebuilding trust in such a damaged brand is a complex and long-term process.
For FIFA, as for everyone concerned, this year’s World Cup brings with it a raft of opportunities and risks. As the organisation’s showpiece event, a successful and memorable tournament could prove to be an invaluable tool in terms of demonstrating the progress FIFA has made in cultivating an innovative and forward-thinking internal culture. But equally, its leaders will know that any hint of wrongdoing or incompetence will result in extraordinary scrutiny, and so if they want to avoid becoming embroiled in conversations around FIFA’s past sins, they will know that a scandal-free tournament is imperative.
Equally worthy of consideration is the venue for the World Cup 2018. This year’s competition will take place in Russia, with 64 games being played across 12 venues in 11 cities, and the location represents another reputational challenge for FIFA to content with. The previous tournament in Brazil presented its own challenges. Public protests surrounding issues such as government prioritisation of spending on the tournament rather than addressing social welfare challenges, as well the eventual impeachment of the country’s President, cast a shadow over the events but primarily happened alongside the tournament rather than disrupting its proceedings.
In Russia, the issues being discussed are far more related to the smooth running of the competition itself. Even leaving aside Russia’s controversies on a global diplomatic level, issues such as state-sponsored doping of athletes, which led to the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee from this year’s Winter Olympics, and Russian fan violence at the UEFA European Championship football tournament in France in 2016 still loom large. In addition, human rights considerations relating to instances of racial abuse from Russian fans, as well as protection of LGBT rights have been big topics of conversation amongst both travelling fans and players.
This year sees the World Cup enter a crucial phase in its history, and the next two tournaments in Russia and Qatar will play a major part in defining how it is perceived moving forward. Two unsuccessful tournaments, owing to either negative fan experiences or political strife could deal a significant blow to the tournament both to its reputation and to its finances, particularly if the prospect of boycotts on the part of supporters, nations or sponsors becomes part of the public conversation.
In terms of FIFA’s stance on all of this, given the precariousness of its own position, it has little option but to adopt a hard line on these issues. A clear public message in terms of its expectations of the tournament host will be important, as will an open and ongoing dialogue with all of its stakeholders, whether that be fans, hosts, or sponsors. And finally, a true willingness to take decisive action in the form of financial or sporting sanctions will be imperative if the World Cup is to maintain its place as the standard bearer for global sporting events.