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What's the Legacy of the 2010 World Cup?

A fraction of one percent of FIFA's total profit from the tournament.
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(Photo: shine2010/Flickr)

(Photo: shine2010/Flickr)

The events and venues of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa often seemed like one continuous billboard of logos from both FIFA and its corporate partners—not surprising given that the mega-bucks tournament is now as much about marketing companies, places, and ideas as it is about soccer. In that profit-driven context, it was initially surprising during my own visits to various tournament venues in South Africa to see that one prominent logo was for the “official” social responsibility campaign of the tournament: a program called “20 Centres for 2010,” the creation of youth centers based on various mixtures of soccer, education, and development programming. I thought it seemed like a nice idea, and a nice legacy. But as someone with academic interests in sports and development, and experience with soccer in sub-Saharan Africa, I should have thought more carefully

The last World Cup was the first contemporary sporting mega-event held on the African continent, and the historically Eurocentric FIFA deserves some credit for being willing to share. But it also deserves some questions about pandering to stereotyped outsider perspectives identifying Africa as one homogenous place most characterized by its need for external help in order to “develop.” In the soccer world, Africa, and particularly its sub-Saharan nations, has become the ur-site for the booming Sports for Development and Peace (SDP) industry, for perceptions of unrefined talent, and for the problems of paternalism. Another FIFA logo during the 2010 World Cup, for example, asked us to “Celebrate Africa’s Humanity™.” But why was FIFA allowed to trademark “Africa’s Humanity,” and could we imagine a similar slogan elsewhere: Celebrate Europe’s Humanity? Celebrate America’s Humanity?

Here is the fundamental tension in the feel-good stories of a World Cup and its legacy: At a personal level soccer is a great way to connect with people, and it can be a tool for social change. But at a broader social and structural level, those connections allow, and maybe even enable, the broader problems of global inequality and unequal opportunity.

THE BASIC IMPULSE OF a social legacy program for the first World Cup on the African continent, of course, is a decent one: Within the 53 countries and over a billion people that make up Africa, there are intense and unjust inequalities. There is also a remarkably widespread passion for soccer, and an abundance of talent. But given the state of contemporary global society and the global game, could the same not be said of every continent? The simple fact is that the only nations to ever win a World Cup are from either Europe or South America—the rest of us are still trying to figure it out.

The “20 Centres for 2010” program also had some more fundamental issues, starting with a simple matter of grammar. In most readings, the word for conveys an idea that the centers were to be built in conjunction with other tournament accoutrements like massive stadiums. But while FIFA was quick to promote “20 Centres” for its alliterative connection to 2010, the actual count of real centers, upon tournament kick-off, seems to have been the third digit in 2010: one center in the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town that provided a scenic backdrop for further promotional events. There were perhaps four more centers done within a month of the tournament ending, at least according to the only media source I know of that actually followed up on the reality of FIFA’s promotional campaign. (NPR reporter Anders Kelto produced a mildly critical story on the project at the end of July 2010.)

It is a bit hard to confirm the actual numbers today both because FIFA was never very up-front about the status of the “20 Centres” and because they were spread out across the massive geographic agglomeration of nations and regions that is the continent of Africa. We do know that FIFA produced a "final report" promoting the completion of all 20 centers at the end of 2013 (though even there the final report seems to include pictures of centers that are still under construction or in concept). But this report also raises the second basic complication of this particular claim to a “legacy”: 20 small centers, most of which do not seem to include full-sized fields, tangibly works out to one miniature field for every 50 million people on the continent, and abstractly works out to a perpetuation of the unfortunate perception that Africa is one place sharing a homogenous need for help.

It should be said that each of the individual centers look to be nice places—ostensibly collaborative efforts between host communities and host NGO’s, they offer different types of educational programming linked by an interest in soccer. In June of 2013 I actually had a chance to visit the Khayelitsha center while leading a study abroad program in Cape Town, and I was reasonably impressed. Khayeltisha itself is a huge and diverse place, with an estimated population of at least 400,000, with the center hidden away in a small corner down dusty, paved streets. We were hosted by the NGO that is the “Centre Host”: Grassroots Soccer, which is devoted to HIV education through soccer-based activities. My students had the chance to talk to 15 or so locals who worked implementing the Grassroots Soccer programs and who genuinely appreciated the center—apparently, the area had previously been a neighborhood blight, and the mini-turf field along with the offices and classrooms that took up a space the size of a small gymnasium made for a welcome change. After our hosts demonstrated activities such as dribbling relays where the cone obstacles represented metaphorically unsafe sex partners, the field quickly filled with teen boys having an energetic afternoon kick-about. Inside the buildings, we were told, the center was hosting Grassroots Soccer reps from around the continent in for a workshop on monitoring and evaluation—an important latecomer to the growing “Sports for Development and Peace” industry. It was, all in all, another nice scene.

But the more we talked, the more macro legacy questions started to arise. Why, anyway, didn’t they build a regulation size field? What was going to happen to the already fraying turf after a few more years of regular use? Was this one center in a small corner of Khayelitsha really much of a legacy for a tournament that took in an estimated $3.65 billion in revenue and $2.36 billion in profit? (FIFA, ostensibly a non-profit organization, took $631 million of the profits as pure income to simply supplement its “reserves.”)

And here is the fundamental tension in the feel-good stories of a World Cup and its legacy: At a personal level soccer is a great way to connect with people, and it can be a tool for social change. But at a broader social and structural level, those connections allow, and maybe even enable, the broader problems of global inequality and unequal opportunity. In business-school speak, World Cup legacy projects are often a classic case of “greenwashing.”

TO BE CLEAR, I suspect each of the 20 centers that were kind of for the 2010 World Cup does some good work. But I know that the accumulation of those efforts will amount to much less than the PR value FIFA gained from the program, and much less than the over $2 billion in profit FIFA took from the event. In fact, in the final report on the “20 Centres for 2010” project, FIFA claims to have spent $14.5 million on the centers—including $2.5 million in “disciplinary fines from the 2010 World Cup,” which raises a whole different question about who paid that kind of cash for bad “discipline.”  (I hope the majority came from Holland’s performance in the final.) In other words, the total spent on the official social legacy campaign amounts to about 00.006 percent of FIFA’s reported tournament profit. Given this token effort, it may be ironic that the larger legacy of the 2010 World Cup was forcing outsiders to realize that places like South Africa are already “developed” enough to successfully host global mega-events.

For Brazil, FIFA seems to have at least learned its lesson about grammar, if not for avoiding patronizing sloganeering: get ready to be “All in One Rhythm™.” Under the broader auspices of “Football for Hope in Brazil 2014,” the official FIFA World Cup website is notable for its lack of any language making a specific commitment: “FIFA and the Local Organising Committee will roll-out a special programme support for community-based organisations based in the Host Cities for 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil in an effort to increase the positive effects of hosting the competition.” The accompanying video also highlights a Football for Hope tournament for youths to be hosted in Rio in July. I’m sure it will be a meaningful event for the participants, and I’m sure it will get a lot of good PR. But the most interesting question of the Brazil World Cup, and potentially its most significant legacy, is whether that will really be enough.