In praise of international tournaments…

…inspite of rampant commercialisation

Summary

The good side of international sporting tournaments

You could say that for a start, it makes a change from fighting wars. It doesn’t mean that they are a magic wand to major conflicts – otherwise the World Cup of 1934 in Italy and the Berlin Olympics of 1936 would have brought an end to those horrific dictatorships. Fast-forward to Eurovision 2012 and you have an authoritarian regime with lots of oil money to spend on one side versus human rights protesters on the other side. There will always be regimes looking to take advantage of such events to re-enforce their own powerbase as well as trying to improve their image abroad. The nature of how international sporting events are awarded feels farcical as we found out in particular with the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

That in a way is one of the dilemas with the awarding of such competitions. Do they reward authoritarian regimes or do they provide some catalysts for openness and change? A bit of both really. There are those that argue authoritarian governments should not be rewarded with the rights to host such events. There are others that argue the impact of having so many tourists and journalists coming in all at once – bringing the eyes of the world with them – makes it very difficult to hide issues under the carpet. It can force governments – and entire nations to deal with problems that had previously been ignored. With Euro 2012 it was racism. Although within footballing circles at least this has been an ongoing problem, an international tournament held for the first time in both Poland and the Ukraine provided a level of focus that forced the latter two’s hands. They had to act.

Ironically, it was the European governing body UEFA that ended up being ridiculed for its approach. If anything demonstrated that corporate branding was more important than tackling racism, it was the fines levelled during the tournament. But then I hold a number of the big international sports governing bodies in contempt anyway, and this sort of action only serves to re-enforce that view.

As for international tournaments, they are not like package holidays. As far as holidays go, it requires more than a certain amount of interaction with the local population. Not being cooped up in a self-contained resort somewhere. For a start, those that travel for the duration of their teams time in the tournament is normally over a week – especially in footballing terms. As each game is only 90minutes long, that leaves a lot of time to do other things. That means getting out and about.

Those that went to Germany in 2006 – one of my old manager being one of the hundreds of thousands from England to do so – were more than pleasantly surprised by what they found. My hope is that it helped change the stereotypical view of what people think Germans are like. My visits to Germany between 2004-06 were ones that I particularly enjoyed.

My take for future tournaments?

For the Euros I think Platini’s idea will ruin what is already quite a good formula – as Henry Winter says. What Platini wants is a set up that we already have for the Champions League. By having the tournament in one or two countries – and by expanding it to 24 – increases the opportunities for some of the smaller less-well-known but by no means less talented countries to compete on an international stage. While Spain proved themselves to be head and shoulders above the rest of the continent, an international tournament with smaller teams who historically have just missed out, will I think make for more colourful tournaments.

I’d like to think that the Euros in particular could be linked to a wider cultural festival too if that many nations are going to be competing. After all, you have a lot of people from all over the continent coming to one or two countries for what in many cases can be quite a long stay. An opportunity for the host countries to showcase themselves? Massive potential for those countries that, during my early childhood were locked behind the iron curtain. Yes, during my footballing youth the countries of “West Germany” and “The Soviet Union” tripped off my tongue without too much thought. The Poland-Ukraine tournament was the first major post-Cold-War international sporting tournament in that part of the world. I hope that the 2018 World Cup in Russia is even more successful – off the pitch as well as on it.

For the 2020 tournament there’s every opportunity that Russia could host it too. But there are other interesting combinations that could also host it – ones that could lead to the improvement in stadiums that will then be used afterwards unlike the white elephants of the 2002 World Cup. Turkey and Greece would be a particularly interesting combination given their histories. Could co-hosting a sporting tournament help bring their nations together? Or a combination of smaller states? Scotland, Wales and Republic of Ireland? Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary? Norway, Sweden and Denmark? Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia?

Risks

That’s not to say hosting such tournaments are risk-free. Credit where it’s due to Germany in 2006 and to Poland and the Ukraine for their work – particularly the latter two given the coverage. If anything it’s a shame for England that the negative headlines put off more people from going, but then the headlines wouldn’t have been there if the problems of hooliganism weren’t. A lesson for future hosts to tackle these problems head on before the media firestorms hit in the run up to tournaments?

The costs of hosting tournaments are also huge – not helped by governing bodies syphoning off lots of the profits and multinationals pressuring for tax-free advantages. It’s happening with the London Olympics too – let’s not pretend that these problems only happen in other countries. Some countries may simply not have the capacity to host or co-host international tournaments either. Hence why the criteria need to be strong and stuck to. (As opposed to being ‘flexible’ as the Eurozone was catastrophically with membership of the single currency).

With the European Championships now increasing to 24 countries, co-hosting may well become the norm. Few countries have the stadia and infrastructure to host a tournament for that many countries and that many fans. It’s pretty much the big four of the Eurozone (Germany, France, Spain and Italy) plus England. Hence countries are going to have to look to their neighbours to co-host bids. But I don’t think this is a bad thing.

Increasing scrutiny and transparency

For me the current system of bidding and awarding is not fit for purpose. There needs to be far greater openness in the decision-making process. I can’t see that happening while decisions are made behind closed doors by a group of men in suits who live lives so far removed from the people who will actually be watching the events en masse. The only thing that seems to talk to these people is money. Hence why activists are understandably targeting sponsors. Given that people on these governing bodies contain individuals who are representatives or friends of those in authoritarian regimes, we cannot expect the likes of FIFA to be paragons of transparency, sound evidence-based decision-making and good corporate governance.

The London Olympics

My big fear is that either draconian security and/or the branding police will kill it. I hope one of the big lessons from London 2012 is that host nations need to stand up to sponsors and corporations. That means pushing them back to a more benign form of involvement rather than taking swathes of seats, seizing tax-avoiding sweeteners and generally making the areas in and around sporting arenas sterile soulless places.

I genuinely hope the games are a success – and the legacy for East London too. Not least because the taxpayer has paid so much for it. But something tells me there will be some controversy around the Olympics that will have nothing to do with the games themselves. More likely I think it will be around brand policing or the VIP lanes. Expect some social media firestorms around this in August.

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