What We Learned From the World Cup

It was a great party, but was it worth it for Brazil?

Several things stand out now that the World Cup has finally, gratefully, come to an end. First, as was largely known before, it is remarkably difficult to properly organize a world-class, large-scale, sporting event, and to perform well in what you organize—unless, of course, you are lucky enough to be a very rich country, unlucky enough to be governed by a dictatorship, or just, well, very lucky.

Beijing did it with the 2008 Olympics thanks to its political system, which allows the government to pretty much do what it pleases. The same happened for Soviet Union when Moscow hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics, though the boycott from Western nations hurt its image. France was hugely successful in 1998 when it hosted, and won, the World Cup. Brazil, in 2014, could not win it, even though it expected to. Its government, its people, and its fans expected too much from what continues to be a developing country, or an emerging one, or whatever one would like to call it. It is also a democratic country, and it simply was not up to the job of organizing a decent event, and winning.

Secondly, powerhouses are powerhouses, almost always, almost everywhere. Germany has won the World Cup fewer times than Brazil in the tournament’s history but has been more consistent in the last decade and proved to be the class of the tournament. Yes,on occasion, the great fall. This time around it was Italy, England, and Spain. But the money involved in the top European leagues, the intensity of the competition there, and the technology and human and material resources available in these countries dwarfs everything else. There are, of course, upsets, like in all sports. But they are, by definition, exceptions. Which is why, with time, perhaps next time, the United States will become a real contender for the semifinals, final, and the World Cup trophy itself. It has too much going for it in terms of size, finances, and disposition not to continue to improve. But soccer will take longer to become a mass spectator sport in the United States than it will for its national team to become increasingly competitive.

This leads to a third reflection on Brazil’s World Cup. Despite mass TV coverage, new and better technology, and a far greater willingness by teams, networks, and sportscasters to resort to statistical analysis, soccer still doesn’t conform to America’s obsession with numbers and data. Statistical records hardly exist in the sport. Unlike baseball, American football, and basketball, soccer doesn’t lend itself much to the endless piles of numbers for every situation that happens on the field, and no one within soccer has ever been accustomed to breaking down and tabulating every tiny nuance or performance. If coaches and “op research” groups are beginning to use technology and past-game analysis to organize their tactics and strategies, the stats they use will eventually show up on our screens. Not yet, though. Until this happens, American viewers may well remain reluctant to focus on a sport without significant numbers. The fact that networks also have their issues with a game that cannot include constant interruptions for commercials also complicates matters.

Finally, a word on whether it was all worth it. By the number of viewers and the level of excitement, yes it was, without a doubt. By the quality of the games, the players, the broadcasts, absolutely. For the rest of the world, it was a great big party on someone else’s dime. Brazilian taxpayers footed the exorbitant bill, we all enjoyed a great show, the Germans were the winners on the field, and a reasonable amount of tourists visited Brazil and probably had a great time. In October, when the country’s presidential elections take place, we will find out if the Brazilian voters thought it was worth it. Perhaps Brazil’s humiliating defeat will not count at the polls; maybe the relative absence of any major calamities during the tournament will aid President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election effort. Or possibly the electorate will pass her the bill, the one we did not pay for, but on which we enjoyed a wonderful free ride.