Football and the Global South: A future behind closed doors?

In a contemporary sense, the Global South, often referred to countries that emerged out of decolonisation, are rapidly emerging from the peripheries of international order, and becoming core players, considering developments around the world. These countries, especially, India, Brazil and South Africa, are amongst a few that are not just at the core, but shapping these interests and areas through cooperation at bilateral and regional level. Such cooperation has been facilitated by use of sports diplomacy, in the recent past, mainly as countries seek to economically diversify outside of their borders. Football, is an evident tool, consider its socio-economic reach and appeal, and the Global South – and its partnership are not shy of leveraging its potential. Though countries in the South remain diverse, along with sharing a common colonial past, democratic governments are another feature of commonality. While, realising this commonality, most nations increasingly feature a trend that has established for a future of football, as the people’s game, behind closed doors.

Art by Charbak Dipta

The struggle for authority and authorship across the world is growing tensions amongst major countries, and thus around surround some of the most widely regarded and priced tournaments in world football and sports, at large. This has in-turn provided a manifold effect, leading to consequences and complexities well beyond the host nations themselves, perhaps shaping a new phase for the game of football. The appropriation and application of these goals, through football, is being done, not in isolation. But by moving together, as regions – and even clusters of power by increasing stability and dependency in social, economic and political domains.

Through harnessing “potential”, countries are identifying and have an improved and fair relationship with their immediate and extended partners or neighbours (“partnership”). Therefore developing – scope for engagement – at bilateral and regional fronts and levels. There is a growing contention, in hosting of mega sports events – such as Olympics, FIFA World Cups, ICC Cricket World Cups, etc. — across the Global South. This is happening during the time their economies are “developing”. These mega-sports events are seen as an ‘activator’ as Fatima Al Nuaimi describes – catapulting to an increase in the respective nation’s image, using the medium of sports or excuse of such large-scale sporting events to boost business, finance, tourism and cultural opportunities across the host country.

Perhaps we can go back and understand the basics of hosting a mega sports event, such as the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. We can safely say that these tournaments do not automatically make a country rich or even register an economic boom it expects. John Sanker, Chief Operating Officer at KPMG Africa stated: ‘The big boost didn’t happen’, referring to the 2010 edition of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The foundation to this argument can be traced back to the United State of America, where a former athlete turned academician, Rob Baade, wrote a paper on ‘The Sports Tax’. The author argued against the common belief that public expenditure in sports and stadiums have a good return for the taxpayers. There is “no significant positive impact” in the economy of a city, remarked Baade, and “in a regional context, may actually contribute to a reduction in a sports-minded city’s share of regional income” (Soccernomics, 2014).

Baade’s work on the 1994 FIFA World Cup’s impact for the USA along with his colleague Victor Matheson “found nothing” too. Similar studies that investigated and searched for an economic boom, this time during Euro 1996 and 2002 FIFA World Cup just further reinstated Baade’s remarks made in the late 1980s. While, this type of an approach will help the USA, having won the bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, as the host nation (along with Canada and Mexico); as they already have an infrastructure to host such a mega sports event. The arguments from Baade, and in a similar context towards sports tourism brings us to Holger Preuss from the University of Mainz. Professor Preuss in his work on the ‘”new’ money investors” studied the fans present in the host country (Germany) at 2006 FIFA World Cup. The author divided the people into two categories: “time-switchers” and “casual”. The study said, the former in this case, over a quarter of them, would have come to Germany anyway and simply timed their visit to the World Cup’s. The casuals, on the other hand, just went to see what this sporting event is all about. Preuss concludes his study by providing that the spending (just above €2.8 billion) by the visitors was far less than what the host nation invested, and a very minuscule amount compared to Germany’s annual consumer spent domestically (Soccernomics, 2014).

These two case studies and enquires made by Baade and Preuss suggest that the cost of hosting these tournaments are a huge burden. Also, only a rare bunch of countries can sustainably afford it. While the actual benefits have little to do with positive economic shocks, but happiness across the socio-political landscape of the host country.

Let us see the hosting of mega sports events in the developed nations such as the USA (1994 FIFA World Cup), England (Euro 1996), Japan-Korea (2002 FIFA World Cup) and Germany (2006 FIFA World Cup). There is little they can take out financially from the tournament. Though, since the turn of the century, even this has not been the case. We can see a lot of countries from the developing world are eager to host such major sports tournaments.

It started off with South Africa, as stated earlier, and was followed by a double treat for the Brazilians. The latter hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, trying to make a mark in the world, and in the due process leaving everything at a standstill (economically) at home. It has been nine years since the South Africa World Cup, and the country — a “developing” state – registered its sharpest decline in its economy during 2014-2017, a tangible shock for the most industrialised state in Africa. Further, the country had been growing at a very poor rate 0.6 per cent in 2016, followed by a 1.3 per cent growth rate in 2017, whereas an emerging economy should be around the 5 per cent mark. Thus, a repeat of 2010 wasn’t a surprise when Brazil was left with little to celebrate not just because of their 7-1 humiliating defeat to the hands of Germany in the semi-finals, but with the cost of a World Cup, they were not going to recover any time soon.

Though it was not all bad for Brazil; unlike its fellow member from BRICS, the South Americans had a richer footballing culture and a more populous one as well, all it needed was an upgrade in quality that the World Cup brought with it. This was complemented with the Rio Olympics in 2016, just two years later. This made for some balance or comfort level to the economy by hosting two mega-events in a short duration. Brazil also boost a bigger economy to most of its counterparts in the South, and has a rich tradition and ‘network’ to export footballing talent throughout the World. Neymar Jr., Brazil’s “golden-boy” as he is referred to, carries a lot of value not only in the footballing sense with his world record transfer from F.C. Barcelona to Paris Saint Germain but a significant geopolitical interest from Qatar, owners of the French football club.

In these three major tournaments, hosted by two countries (South Africa and Brazil), a common denominator is that they are amongst the more stable democracies in the South. This allowed for other countries and international institutes to make a smooth transition. This is in terms of the optics and logistics of partnering at such tournament(s) far away from a more financially and economically stable environments in the North. It also guaranteed for, in many ways, against the challenges often faced in countries of the South: violation of fundamental rights, labour laws, political instability, lack of cultural diffusion and acceptability, etc. It remains to be seen — as it will be explored further — how the international community and the host themselves dealt, as the FIFA World Cup moved to Russia in 2018, and now to Qatar in 2022 and what nations including India, the largest democracy in the World, has in store as an important regional partner.


The end of World War II also saw a period of decolonisation. A host of countries came to become independent nation-states, opting for a democratic form of government. It was under the United Nations Trust Territories and the emergence of the Third World that this happened. While challenges, in the era post-1950, during the Cold War were not exactly how the newly independent nations would have preferred to function – under the shadows of the USA and USSR. It was the regional groupings that became common for the purpose of economic development and cooperation, promoting a sense of common identity (a ‘Commonwealth’). The Non-Aligned Movement and Group of 77 or G77 provided the necessary bandwidth to operate at the United Nations and in the international community at large. The efforts made by the former resulted in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples brought about a drastic impact and commitment by the grouping to maintain world peace and respect sovereignty.

The areas such as elections and governance, sovereignty and nation-building, socio-cultural and regional stability came as part of the ‘democracy package’. The economies of the East, excluding then USSR and to a certain extent China, were at an infant stage. Though, most countries, in the South, still remain poor economically; on the Human Development Index (National Human Development Report, 2018), Qatar (7th; shares the spot with Cyprus) and Saudi Arabia (9th) have one of the highest HDI in Asia, and have an overall ranking of 33 (0.856) and 38 (0.847) respectively. While, others such as Russia (0.804; 49 position), Iran (0.774; 69 position), China (0.738; position 90) and India (0.624; position 131) are distributed across the scale.

According to a study conducted by authors Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski of the book “Soccernomics: Why Spain, Germany and Brazil win, and why the USA, Japan, Australia – and even Iraq – are destined to become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport” (2014), nations were tagged from major international tournaments that included the Olympics, World Cups across several sports, individual sporting events; its top-5 across all sports were (Rugby Union, Cricket, Baseball, Basketball, Women’s Football, Men’s Tennis, Women’s Tennis, Golf, Cycling, Motor Racing, Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics and Football World Cup): 1. the USA (89 points), 2. Germany [including West Germany] (72 points), 3.USSR/Russia (58 points), 4.Italy (40 points), 5.Brazil (35 points). The authors went a step further and decided to project “how many points each country scored per million inhabitants” (taking population figures as of 2013).

It turned out Norway, the country that also happens to lead the HDI ranking in the world, achieved the first-rank as “the world’s best per-capita sporting nation”. Its score? 3.19, little less than the double of second-place Luxembourg (1.88); this landlocked country is the 7th best in the European Union with an HDI score (0.898) and bags an overall rank at 20, 13 places above Qatar and 111 places above India.

Norway alone was able to achieve a higher score than all of Africa (excluding Oceania). Meanwhile, Brazil a country that did far better in terms of being a sporting nation than Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and India was also higher (79) than its two other BRICS members; considering the size and population of Brazil, we can give it pass over Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

As per a study, Norwegians were found playing sports more often than any of its counterparts in Europe; appealing to the national government’s focus towards enrolling children into the 11,000 local sports clubs, having 93 per cent of children and youngsters regularly playing sports.

There is little doubt over the fact that major chunks of countries do not face the sporting success a lot of other countries do, repeatedly. In order to achieve this success and success rate, nations require money and organisation. While, we can suggest towards a line of thought, wherein it is argued if Democracies win more than Autocracies, the premise can be set that with a lot of rich countries being democratic, they are also winning the most (the USA). Through democracy, the government guarantees its citizen with the rightful distribution of resources, including the development of sport in the country, giving equal opportunity to all its citizens.

Sports will always remain an integral part of the society, with its deeper association to develop a multifaceted relationship that goes beyond the citizen’s association with the state. It transcends towards intertwining elements of facts and fiction, happiness and sorrow, winning and losing, expectations and reality; as if the game itself is the end, and there are several means to it.

The East could pose a major shift from the open and well-integrated community of sports around the World to a closed circuit of absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies, republic, socialist or communist form of government, as the time comes. The very trait of racial identity in the games and nations that allowed its movement into developing and underdeveloped countries can happen to change.

This change does not mean an immediate negative effect and decline of impact on the West’s power in sports around the World; they will still be winning medals and individual honours at major tournaments, but not hold the influence it once did, as a result of the growth and emergence of new talent through grassroots development and knowledge centres and networks in the East. When it happens – depends much on sporting success, either of democracy, autocracy or being Brazil.


At the time, in 2010, when it was announced that the hosting rights of 2018 and 2022 World Cups went to Russia and Qatar respectively, many thought it was the end of FIFA at the hands of autocrats. It sure started a move towards the East, but its foundations were laid long before in South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014), in the form of democracies; along with the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics. Though much has to be credited towards the rising economic and financial prospects and potential in the East, a major part of it goes towards the participation of states. Particularly, in using the power of sport, to justify their means, making it an omnipresent part of their foreign policy and diplomatic affairs.

Gazprom-FIFA-Russia seems to be a match made in heaven. But the story of their journey, and afterwards a march towards the East, leads us to the formation of St. Petersburg in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great. In his words, Peter the Great saw Russia’s extension to the North Sea, with St. Petersburg central to his plans. It would be over 300 years since Peter the Great’s establishing of St. Petersburg and around 87 years since the Russian government shifted to Moscow that in 2005, Roman Abramovich sold 72 percent of his shares in Sibneft to state-controlled gas firm Gazprom. In the aftermath of the deal, it would be ideal to have backed Sibneft interests in sponsoring Moscow-based club CSKA, but Gazprom turned the tide and changed the power structure, in Russia, moving back to St. Petersburg; where it sponsors Zenit since 2005.

Gazprom’s influence in the Russian Federation is unparalleled; it is “a state within a state”, and when it began to invest in the most widely played sports in the world, its effects were soon to be seen, not just in Russia, but across Europe; with the World following suit soon. In Russia, its investments move into volleyball, as well: VC Zenit-Kazan and Gazprom-Ugra Surgut. In Europe, it first moved into Germany through FC Schalke 04 in 2007 and three years later extended its support towards Serbian SuperLiga football club Red Star Belgrade. Since the start of the 2012/2013 season, Gazprom has been an ever-present in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Super Cup as an official partner; it renewed its partnership with the organisation in 2018, building on its (Gazprom) “long heritage in football” as Guy-Laurent Epstein, UEFA Events SA Marketing Director, said.

The investment in 2018 for the World Cup in Russia is estimated to be around €10 billion; more on which will be expanded in another further sub-topic of this article. This approach to sponsorship and financial management within a diverse footballing community leaves Russia with greater options to explore in Qatar and beyond, as the 2018 World Cup is over.

Collectivism seems to be a thing of the past, as regionalism seems to take charge; not just in the way, we saw during the days of NAM, but how the developing Third World saw itself come to terms with the functioning of the liberal west, opening up its economy and brining-in a host of successful and unsuccessful challenges to its sovereignty. If the faith of the West was, in elements such as democracy, free flow of trade, liberalisation, globalisation etc. to capture new markets and the developing economy in the post-colonial world, it now their fate as how the East reacts to the demands of the once all-conquering West, in its march towards a future behind closed doors.


The role of Russia and its importance along with major powers from Asia to effectively use sports (note: not just football and cricket) is an exercise into the diversification of interests and exploring new markets in the decentralising world order. In allowing this to unfold, the West seemingly gets further isolated from the discussion table: losing out on major sponsorship opportunities across continents, broadcasting rights in major football leagues, hosting of sports events that are of significance domestically, lending financial and technological assistance across countries, helping share the cost burden through bilateral partnerships.

The World Cup in Russia had two main aspects to it; first, is Russia and FIFA’s relationship and second, the differences in the international political economy that existed for Russia at the time it bid for the tournament. While, sponsorship has been a major concern, especially for FIFA, during this tournament, China has been happy to extend its support; VIVO’s reported invested as much as $500 million to become one of the biggest supporters, in Russia. The role of partnerships is shaping a gateway for the East, as several centuries ago Peter the Great saw it.

In the aftermath of the events that unfolded at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia’s position to host and contest the World Cup was naturally challenged. Its ongoing conflict in the annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, apart from its intense relationship with England regarding Sergei Skripal and his daughter’s poisoning incident, only added fuel to the fire. In addition to this, are the country’s action and approach towards hooliganism, raises some serious eyebrows regarding the security of the fans, especially the LGBT community — aspects and components, anyone would not find in stable democracies.

The increasing number of democratic regimes in the developing world, in the period of post-colonisation, brought with it the new scope of interactions and exchanges based on cooperation, regionally or otherwise. While, it was seen that much of Russia and China along with the Middle-East have more autocratic or monarchies compared to democracies such as in India, South Africa or Brazil, a lot of the respective countries’ foreign policy goals are dominated by globalisation.

We also saw how countries in the South have come together and formed networks to develop their citizens’ capacities (HDI), in order to create better athletes and in turn enhance their winning prospects in the coming years, thereby contributing to the global knowledge sharing network, largely dominated by the west in the past. Through Russia, China and the Middle-East’s role in sports sponsorship, it can be identified that despite being individualistic in nature, such support encourages the prospects of common power play, in the attempts of East to exert pressure on the West and its institutions: IOC, FIFA etc. – institutions that are ideally democratic in nature. In all this, the major question remains that how in flexing its money muscles, is the East bringing autocracy back to the sport of football, while the game of cricket, remains – as of now – unhindered, and in constructing a model framework for the former, are we preparing a bypass to democracy itself? If so, what are the security and geopolitics implications of it?

Aulakh Balbir

Balbir is a second-year student of M.A. (Hons.) Public Policy at the University of Mumbai. Currently, he works as an Associate at the State Election Commission, Maharashtra, the Constitutional Body responsible for conduct urban and rural local body elections in the state.