The countdown to FIFA World Cup 2014 in Sao Paolo has been shadowed by protests in the host city in Brazil. Striking subway workers who are demanding pay hike, failed negotiations and standoff between protesters and commuters have put the transport system in chaos. Last month, a mural by a city artist on the doors of a school portrayed a starving child crying with nothing to eat on his plate but a football. Such responses seem to bear a refrain faced by developing countries that go on to organise showpiece international events: Why splurge billions that could have been better spent on public welfare?
In India, the conduct of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi left the ruling Congress party with egg on its face. In the previous edition of the FIFA World Cup, the beautiful game was sought to be utilised to project a national identity papering over deep divisions in a post-apartheid South Africa. Just as forcible evictions of the urban poor prior to the events helped present the right “brands” to the visiting tourist, thousands have been relocated from Brazil’s favelas—slums that form a rich part of the country’s culture and have produced some of the greatest footballers—in the name of “social cleansing”.
While the social and economic inequities in developing countries—where the gaps between the haves and the have-nots are stark—cannot be wished away, it is hoped that events such as the football world cup are organised efficiently and with optimal use of resources, for the ability of sports to bridge barriers cannot be ignored. Administrative and organisational lethargy and corrupt practices have to be eradicated by the political establishments in these countries to prevent a popular backlash. Once the referee blows the whistle on Thursday, the euphoria of watching the superstars in action and an incident-free tournament could at best beguile disgruntled Brazilians into temporarily forgetting the travails of everyday life.