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Research project analyzes the use of the FIFA World Cup by three BRICS members in order to increase their global influence

by Richard Meckien - published Mar 08, 2019 04:05 PM - - last modified Mar 14, 2019 03:58 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Victor Matioli.

Copa do Mundo da Fifa

Former FIFA President Joseph Blatter between Dilma Rousseff and Vladimir Putin, presidents of Brazil and Russia, during a ceremony in 2014 | Photo: Press Release / Kremlin

Physical educator Marco Antonio Bettine, a professor at USP's School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities (EACH) since 2013, started the development of his research project on the geopolitical dynamics involved in the choice of host countries for the FIFA World Cup. He has been one of the selected researchers to participate in this year's Sabbatical Year Program.

With "Soft Power: A Look at the Strategic Use of BRICS Hosting the FIFA World Cup - Analysis of South Africa, Brazil and Russia," Bettine will try to understand how FIFA has become an economic, political and legal power capable of governing a cultural asset such as football, the most popular and practiced sport in the world. At the same time, he intends to build relationships between the participation of three BRICS members - Brazil, Russia, and South Africa - as host countries of the World Cup and the variations in their soft power.

The concept of soft power has been developed by American political scientist Joseph Nye in contrast to hard power. According to Nye's definition, while hard power provides for the use of the economic and war power of a state to influence decisions of another state or political body, soft power presupposes the use of diplomacy and culture as instruments of influence. "Examples of hard power used by the USA government are the economic sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, and the military actions in the Middle East," explains Bettine. "The American soft power, on the other hand, aims to reach other countries through persuasion, example and the film industry."

The researcher's analysis will focus on the World Cup editions held in South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018). News stories that were published during these events by some of the world's top media outlets will be the main source of information. With data from Google Trends, Bettine has compared the number of hits from eight outlets based in four countries to determine which ones would be analyzed. Le Monde (France), BBC (UK), and El Pais (Spain) have been chosen due to greater methodological adaptation.

Brazilian, Russian and South African outlets will not be considered for the project "because the objective of the work is the analysis of foreign visions on the BRICS. And who holds the power of international decisions in the political sphere are the foreign newspapers."

Marco Antonio Bettine de Almeida
Researcher Marco Antonio Bettine | Photo: Personal archive

Mega-sport events and soft power

Bettine understands that sport, because of its undeniable cultural and social influence, has become a powerful instrument of soft power. As a result, organizations such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have acquired a great capacity for persuasion towards potential host countries for events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. From the perspective of the countries, these competitions are commonly seen as opportunities to spread their culture, infrastructure and sovereignty to the world, as well as to strengthen local trade and tourism. For the researcher, the interest is mutual: to FIFA, the financial gains and the increase of its political force is very attractive, while for the host countries there is a desire of increasing soft power and international influence.

South Africa saw the event as an opportunity to become the representative country of pan-Africanism - a movement that seeks the emancipation and socioeconomic development of the African continent -, explains the researcher. Brazil wanted to consolidate the national image abroad. Among other things, the Brazilian government sought a permanent member position in the United Nations Security Council, a more active participation in international relations, and the gain of relevance within BRICS and MERCOSUR.

According to Bettine, Brazil was seen with disrepute by the foreign press, which believed the country was unable to carry out a mega-sport event. He recalls, however, that a week after the start of the matches, the outlets declared themselves deceived: without major problems, Brazil conducted the World Cup in an efficient way. For him, in terms of soft power, "the Cup was a success for Brazil and Dilma Rousseff's government."

In a contrary movement by the time of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil had undergone a presidential impeachment process in addition to several economic and social fragilities which damaged the image of the event. The clear vulnerability of Brazilian democracy led international outlets to pay more attention to the malfunctions practiced during the Olympic Games.

"If the country is doing well internally and has a certain international strength, it is able to influence the ways and choices of the media," explains the researcher. "If it is destabilized, it can not create its own agendas for dissemination in international media."

Copa do Mundo
Germany and Argentina face off in the final of the World Cup 2014 | Photo: Danilo Borges / Wikimedia Commons

BRICS and the World Cup legacy

The last three editions of the FIFA World Cup have been hosted by BRICS-member countries. According to Bettine, this is due to the fact that they are, in general, "nations with fragile democracies, but with great financial potentials and in search of greater international visibility". The democratic weakness of host countries is, according to him, a fundamental part of FIFA's decision-making process: "Jérôme Valcke, former FIFA secretary general who was dismissed on charges of corruption and misconduct in ticket sales for the 2010 and 2014 events, said that 'too much democracy hampers the holding of the World Cup.'"

One of the mechanisms of influence and co-optation used by FIFA to persuade countries to host the World Cup is the promise of structural reforms and the improvement of the country's infrastructure, according to the researcher. In the events hosted by BRICS members, however, the promises have been disregarded almost completely. The improvement of the regional HDI, public transport, and access to basic sanitation have been the main broken pacts. "Brazil and South Africa are countries that continue to have basic infrastructure problems, even around the big stadiums built for the matches," says Bettine.

The researcher points out that from 2015 FIFA's mistakes have come to an inflection point. Several high-ranking members of the organization started to be tried and convicted of crimes committed during the World Cups in 2010 and 2014, and in the choices of Russia and Qatar as host cities for 2018 and 2022, respectively. The convictions, however, were not motivated by noncompliance with promises made in the periods prior to the events, by frauds in ticket sales, or by gentrification processes influenced by sporting events, but by attempts at money laundering in shell companies In the USA.


According to the professor, the interdisciplinary character of the project comes from the simultaneous approach of themes such as international relations, global governance, media influence, Brazilian culture, and the cultural importance of football.

For him, the main focus of the research is to understand how all of these news stories can help "to define the role of FIFA, of sociological theory, and of soft power's and hard power's political theory during the organization of the World Cup by the BRICS members."