Is the World Cup Really Worth It?

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An Adidas logo sits on a FIFA World Cup Brasil football on display inside the Adidas AG sportswear store in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, May 2, 2014.Credit: Bloomberg

Every four years, the World Cup brings joy and instills a sense of national pride to billions of sports fans around the world. Even Americans, for all of our well-known apathy toward adult soccer, drew close to 23 million viewers this year for our heartbreaking 2-2 draw against Portugal.

However, lurking behind this seemingly joyous and uplifting event is FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), which has organized and coordinated the World Cup since 1930. In a report for HBO network, John Oliver perhaps put it best when he compared the federation’s World Cup organizing to making a sausage: “if you love something, never find out how it’s made.”

I will admit I am not a particularly avid soccer fan, but after watching Oliver’s report and further reading about the allegedly corrupt and self-serving ways in which FIFA operates, I am even less inclined to support the World Cup than I was before. American sporting leagues are certainly not without scandals. Baseball limped through the steroids in the 1990s. American football still has its share of lawsuits relating to football concussions. We have our basketball owners who make racist comments. All of our leagues routinely cancel seasons due to labor disputes. But these scandals are addressed (although, admittedly, not always well) and truly pale in comparison to the global economic disparity and mayhem encouraged by FIFA.

As a Jew and a rabbi whose values are guided by our Torah and Jewish tradition, I find it is particularly noteworthy that so many of FIFA’s alleged improprieties violate so many of our Torah’s fundamental principles that seek to create a fair, just and reasonable society. FIFA has long been criticized for choosing to hold the World Cup in countries that are ill equipped to hold it, causing billions of government dollars to be diverted toward building stadiums. Holding the World Cup in Brazil at the cost of around $4.2 billion to build facilities was socially and morally irresponsible in a country with so much income disparity. Why would they select a country to host the World Cup where that money could do much other good? Certainly, there will be tourism revenues that may offset some of these expenses. However, in terms of guaranteed money, it is clear that FIFA will emerge as the big winner.

The Book of Deuteronomy (see 15:11, and other verses) is just one of a multitude of Jewish sources that focus on our God-given responsibility to take care of the poor. The Arena de Amazonia cost the Brazilian government over $300 million to build, and will now cost $250,000 a month to maintain. In the meanwhile, the 6,000 residents of Educandos, a neighborhood in Manaus, are reportedly living in squalor and unsanitary conditions. It is unlikely that the stadium will ever see continual use, let alone a sell-out crowd after the World Cup. If you don’t believe me, just ask South Africa, where just four years later, some of its expensive World Cup stadiums sit empty and income disparity is also great. The Brazilian poor will now remain poorer thanks to FIFA’s even poorer choice.

Brazil is also a country that has had its difficulty with drunken soccer fans. This is why the sale of alcohol at regular soccer matches has been banned there. However, because FIFA generates revenue from its sales of alcohol, it insisted that if Brazil wanted to host the World Cup it had to permit the sale of alcohol, according to Oliver, who said that Brazil conceded, rushing a special bill through parliament to meet FIFA’s condition.

For those who have problems with the consumption of alcohol, but who do enjoy a soccer match, it seems to me that FIFA has done a great job “putting a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) to stuff its own pockets.

Finally, Exodus 23:8 forbids bribe taking because of the ripple effect it has on corrupting our society. FIFA’s recent controversial decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in the country of Qatar is not only problematic because of Qatar’s regular human rights violations and its high outdoor temperatures. It has been alleged that Qatari officials bribed FIFA officials for their votes, so that yet another country that does not take care of its poor can build new soccer stadiums. FIFA has called an investigation, but something tells me we’ll still all be watching Doha in 2022.

Americans may celebrate our team’s success in the World Cup this year, even though our journey has now drawn to a close. But as Jews, we should hope that FIFA seeks a more moral path when organizing the World Cup going forward.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J. He thanks the excellent reporting of John Oliver and HBO’s Last Week Tonight for serving as the inspiration for this article.

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