Football: it’s NOT just a game

Hugh Macpherson


Posted in: Campaigns & Activism, Human Rights, Speaking Out

Football: it’s NOT just a game

June 05, 2014

Hugh Macpherson discusses the important role large scale sporting events like the World Cup play in highlighting social and environmental injustices around the world.

To those not interested in football, the upcoming World Cup in Brazil may be nothing more than a distraction.

And to many, football is summed up in the vast numbers that are thrown about in terms of player and staff wages, transfer fees and club debt. Yet these numbers do also astound football fans, I promise you. Few football fans believe it’s right that money that could build hospitals is spent moving a footballer from one club to another.

I think that football is one of the most powerful tools on the planet for bringing people together. Even a vague interest and knowledge in it is a starting point for a friendship. It’s a dream icebreaker.

But there’s another reason that football is a power for good in the world, and it’s one that is a bit more concrete.

Every year more people watch football than any other sport on the planet. And this popularity naturally brings with it a vast amount of scrutiny.

On the right day, a Google News search for Brazil World Cup will bring up as many stories about issues like civil unrest, construction workers’ health and safety and environmental concerns as it will about team news, the latest injuries and whether or not players’ wives and girlfriends will be wearing Gucci or Armani.

And that’s what money brings. In a World Cup, as with most global sporting events, you have a combination of extraordinary expenditure and careful media scrutiny. And careful media scrutiny highlights to the public the manner in which preparations for the World Cup are being carried out.

In 2022 Qatar will host the World Cup and preparations for it are already under way. However, the treatment of workers helping build the infrastructure for the event has been heavily criticised by the world’s media. Some reports have estimated that at current rates, 4,000 migrant workers will die in Qatar before the World Cup even kicks off in 8 years’ time. That any workers have died so far in World Cup infrastructure projects has been denied by the Qatari government.

However this intense media and public concern has already begun to have an impact. In February this year the Qatari government pledged that contractors commissioned to build World Cup stadiums in 2014 will be held to high standards on the welfare of migrant workers, and in May it pledged to reform controversial labour laws. This is a direct result of pressure from FIFA and the world’s media.

There are also organisations using this attention to positively increase awareness on key issues. Since the beginning of the century the Homeless World Cup has highlighted the plight of homeless people in all FIFA member countries. More recently the Street Child World Cup, held alongside every World Cup and in the host nation, helps to highlight the issue of street children. These initiatives are using the popularity and global reach of the World Cup to address particular issues.

There aren’t many international events which are so direct in highlighting social and environmental injustices as the World Cup. So even if football isn’t your thing, maybe there’s another reason you can get behind your team this summer.


Hugh Macpherson is a Senior Researcher at Corporate Citizenship.