Stadiums Like White Elephants

2014-07-17T11:18:52+00:00 June 10th, 2014|

The 2014 World Cup is about to kick off in Brazil—amid widespread protests over how much hosting soccer’s biggest competition will cost Brazil’s taxpayers. The broad strokes of the pushback against scarce tax dollars underwriting for-profit sports will sound very familiar to Belt readers. Can cash-strapped cities like Cleveland afford to play ball? Or does rain follow the plow of new stadiums? We asked soccer expert Noah Davis to take a look at the legacy of the prior World Cup to see what happens after the biggest game of them all rolls through your town, or country, or planet.

By Noah Davis

There’s a great little bar that sits across a parking lot filled with unkempt shrubbery and the two-lane R565 roadway, in the shadow of Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Being the only drinking establishment within walking distance of a stadium that hosted six matches during the 2010 World Cup had its advantages. This bar became the place where fans congregated before and after, filling an outside space that grew less grassy with each passing fixture.

When the United States played Ghana in the round of 16, American supporters decked out in red, white, and blue face paint and scarves drank Castel Lager alongside an English fan sporting a Knights of the Round Table costume. (The Three Lions, having finished second in the Group C, played their round of 16 game 300 miles south in Bloemfontein. They lost 4–1.) Budweiser, Official Beer of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, was nowhere to be found, although the ubiquitous Coca Cola coolers found their way onto the premises just under 32 flags from the participating nations.

The bar served as an oasis in the middle of nowhere. Booze and barbeque and Biltong. The scene in Phokeng, 10 miles northwest of Rustenberg, a city of 100,000, looked a bit like rural Alabama, the surrounding area littered with haphazardly constructed one-story houses, kudzu replaced by knob thorn.

In the near distance, the stadium loomed large, isolated on its own strip of land. FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, had erected two large temporary white tents for the duration of the World Cup. One served as the media work area; the other as their mess tent. Both were functionally adequate, although the bolder members of the press opted for the BBQ station at the bar, their press passes hanging conspicuously around their necks as they mingled with fans, eating and getting “color” for their game stories.

As of 2010, Royal Bafokeng Stadium looked sturdier than both the bar and FIFA’s temporary tents, but only just. Something about the facade gave the impression that very high-grade tinfoil was a primary construction material. The running track that rings the playing field already looked worn and pitted. The two colors of the ovals of seats—yellow closer to the field and blue higher up—faded nearly instantly from the constant solar bombardment. On the night the United States lost to Ghana, huge plumes of smoke from nearby brush fires drifted apocalyptically in the distance, backlit by the setting sun.

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In 1999, the Royal Bafokeng Nation won a settlement entitling them to 20 percent of the revenue from platinum mined on their land. Emboldened by these riches, the elders of the 29 villages decided to construct a stadium. The hope was to draw a rugby team—more popular than soccer in this part of South Africa—to play, a plan that mostly failed (although the Leopards, owned by Royal Bafokeng Sports Holdings, have played matches there), and to host large, one-off events, a plan that sort of succeeded.

The stadium, bolstered by a $48 million state-funded renovation in 2009 that increased capacity 4,000 to a FIFA-mandated 42,000 and added a cantilever roof, floodlights, and a scoreboard, hosted four matches during the Confederations Cup, six during the World Cup, and seven in the 2013 Africa Cup of nations. Not once did it come within 7,000 fans of selling out. The Platinum Stars of the South African Premier League play their home games in Royal Bafokeng. The team finished the 2013–2014 campaign midtable in the Premiership, second to last in attendance at 3,319 a game.

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This week, the World Cup moves to Brazil. Ready or not, the world is coming, bringing an economic impact of $3.03 billion at the cost of nearly $14 billion. Massive stadiums in Manaus, Natal, and other obscure regions stand as the latest shiny (for now) emblems to the waste of public dollars. When play is over, Brazil will boast 10 of the world’s 20 most expensive stadiums, while non-stadium infrastructure projects that could have had a lasting impact on the country fell behind, then were completely abandoned, as is usually the case in World Cup hosts. FIFA (and let’s lump in the International Olympic Committee here, too) needs success on the playing field. Their officials, just like the wider world, can, and do leave when it’s over.

From Reuters:

Bureaucracy, corruption and political squabbling, they say, has led to the usual lack of follow-through that has often hobbled development in Latin America’s biggest country. A $16 billion bullet train between Rio and São Paulo never got off the drawing board. Instead of a new airport terminal, passengers in Fortaleza will pass through a huge tent. A $700 million rail line in the farm-belt capital of Cuiabá won’t be ready until well after the Cup. Nationwide, only 36 of 93 major projects are complete, according to Sinaenco, a trade group of engineers and architects.

While incomplete or behind-schedule civic engineering projects aren’t a huge surprise, the down-to-the-wire struggle to finish the stadiums is. FIFA (and, again, the IOC) prides itself on keeping the progress for the places where the games will take place moving forward at a steady enough pace to ensure completion. There was and is and will always be trepidation about whether the venues will get finished in time, but they always do. They did and will in Brazil, but the timeline got mighty short there at the end.

Part of the reason for the difficulties is the general public’s growing awareness about the lack of benefit a host nation gains from these international “mega events.” An influential 2006 paper from Holy Cross economist Victor A. Matheson called bullshit on the whole economic benefit narrative. Gary Hustwit’s stunning photos of the instant ruins of the 2004 Olympic venues in Athens show Matheson’s theories in stark practice. The world goes away, the concrete crumbles. No one wants to host the 2022 Olympics for exactly this reason. The Brazilian government wanted 2014 to be a coming-out party for the emerging nation and its economy. If the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil is any indication, the only people coming out will be the protesters. Meanwhile, estimates for growth rate and GDP continue to fall, while joblessness and inflation tick up as workers rush to put the finishing touches on 12 new or refurbished stadiums with the capacity of at least 42,000 fans. The domestic league averages just over 13,000 supporters per game.

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On May 10, roughly a month before the World Cup kicked off with Brazil playing Croatia in front of more than 68,000 at the $450-million Arena Corinthians, the Platinum Stars defeated Ajax Cape Town 3–0 in the last match of the Premier League season. Royal Bafokeng Stadium, a white elephant not too far from Pilanesberg Game Reserve where tourists can take a Sunrise Elephant Safari for just under $45, played host to 3,020 supporters. Business at the bar across the street was presumably slower than it had been when the U.S. played Ghana four years before.

The official FIFA website that previously highlighted Royal Bafokeng Stadium sits blank, featuring a map of Brazil and nothing else, the world’s focus now turned 5,000 miles northwest. The games will continue.

 

Noah Davis has written for The New Yorker, GQ, Men’s Journal, New York, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Details, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Fitness, and many others. He is a deputy editor at American Soccer Now, and Grantland’s United States national team columnist. You can find him on Twitter @noahedavis.

Photo of Royal Bafokeng Stadium via fstockphoto/Shutterstock.

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