The World Cup is almost upon us
Qatar is about two and a half times the size of Tipperary and in a few weeks it will host the second largest (after the Olympic Games) sporting event on the planet, the FIFA World Cup. This event only comes around every four years and, as a child, I would be giddy at the very thought of it. I remember watching, alongside my father and brother, Mario Kempes scoring goals in Argentina in 1978. I think I watched every single kick of the World Cup in Spain in 1982, with wall charts and stickers and paraphernalia galore. I saw sporting cynicism for the first time when I rushed home from school to watch Austria play West Germany in what had been billed as a crunch match only for both sides to contrive to ensure that both qualified. It became know as the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’. And then there was Patrick Battiston and Harald Schumacher in the semi-final, Marco Tardelli’s goal celebration in the final. All vivid childhood memories. The fact it only came around every four years added to the sense of occasion.
But not anymore and it isn’t that I am older and more cynical. It is because the whole thing is now a
vulgar disgrace. And those watching this charade need to remind themselves just how rotten this World Cup is. I have written before about the human rights violations that have been evident in Qatar, migrant workers building stadiums that have no purpose after this month long exercise in sporting cynicism. But to put this in perspective, let’s imagine that Tipperary was hosting the world cup and that we had 8 state of the art football stadiums within our county. If we were to take the footprint of the stadiums in Qatar and apply them to Tipperary we would have them all within a 55km radius of say Thurles. That is eight football stadiums all fitting inside this county. Qatar has only 3 million residents and when this World Cup is over they will have eight modern football stadiums left behind. For what purpose?
The Al Bayt Stadium has a capacity of 60,000. The Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium has a capacity of 40,000.
The Al Janoub Stadium has a capacity of 40,000. The Khalifa International Stadium has a capacity of 40,000. The Education City Stadium has a capacity of 40,000. The Lusail Stadium has a capacity of 80,000. The 974 stadium has a capacity of 40,000 (it is named after the international dialling code for Qatar!). The Al Thumama Stadium has a capacity of 40,000. That is a total of 380,000 seats in modern football stadiums, for a population of 3 million people and all fitting comfortably into an area the size of Tipperary.
Now, some of the stadiums are going to be deconstructed after the World Cup and others reduced
in size. But the cost of building these structures both in monetary and human terms has been immense. Qatar’s new stadiums have been reported to cost in the range of $6.5 billion–$10 billion, while a metro system that serves five of the eight venues cost another $36 billion. Altogether, the event is expected to cost $220 billion, with Qatar only anticipating $17 billion in economic return from the tournament. So, in strict monetary terms, this World Cup is a financial basket case. It is a loss making exercise. It was always going to be a loss making exercise and only for the deep, deep pockets of the Gulf State, it couldn’t work.
World Cups are supposed to leave legacies. They are supposed to spread the game around the
World. Take South Africa in 2010 as an example. The Soccer City Stadium just outside of Johannesburg had a $150 million upgrade before the tournament and it boats a 94,000 seat capacity. It still pays its way as all stadiums must. It is busy most weekends hosting matches, or concerts. It hosted a mass memorial for Nelson Mandela, and has also hosted massive election rallies for the ANC. Not so some of the other stadiums that were built for the World Cup in 2012.
Most of whom are in the red and cannot wash their face, most notably The Nelson Mandela Bay
Stadium in Port Elizabeth, whose problem is that there isn’t a sufficiently successful sporting team (soccer or rugby) in the area to support the building of a state of the art 47,000 seat stadium. It is
now something of a white elephant.
In Munster, we have shiny new stadiums in Cork and Limerick, both of whom are heavily in debt.
Thomond Park was built during a boom time for Munster Rugby. Tickets for European Cup games
were so hard to procure that many wondered at the time if a capacity of 26,000 would be sufficient to meet demand. Last season Munster Rugby chose to rent Lansdowne Road for their ‘home’
quarter final with Toulouse rather than host the French side in Limerick. The reason? Ed Sheeran was playing two concerts in Thomond that weekend. This seems to defy logic that a rugby stadium is built, rented out for a concert during the rugby season and when the advantage of a home draw in a European quarter final is secured, that advantage is negated by having to decamp to Dublin 4.
Munster will host Ulster this weekend in Thomond and the place might be half full if they are lucky.
It is a magnificent edifice when full, must less so with banks of empty seats.
Pairc Ui Chaoimh was supposed to cost €78 million but rose to €96 million. That leaves a debt burden on the stadium which has to be chipped away at. And with only two guaranteed home games per year for the Cork hurlers, there just isn’t sufficient footfall into the stadium to allow it to break even, let alone manage it’s debt. It will be a long time before it returns a profit. So Cork GAA found themselves in the same position as Munster Rugby last year and had to decamp to Thurles for their ‘home’ Munster Hurling Championship match with Clare, thereby conceding home advantage.
The reason, Ed Sheeran again was renting the Stadium beside the Lee. Cork lost that match incidentally.
The Rugby World Cup is in France next year. You might remember that Ireland were confident of
becoming hosts for that particular tournament when the bidding war was underway. We had proposed the use of four current rugby stadiums alongside eight GAA stadiums in our, ultimately unsuccessful, bid. Had we been successful, how much would it have cost to upgrade the likes of McHale Park in Castlebar, Pearse Stadium in Galway, and Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney so that they could host a major international tournament with all that entails in terms of media, hospitality, corporate sponsors etc? And what would we have done with these fabulously upgraded stadiums when the tournament ended? Castlebar might be full once a year for a Connaught final, or maybe every second year if Salthill had to get the final too. How often is Fitzgerald Stadium used currently? How often is it full?
The World Cup in Qatar is first a foremost a vanity project for the ruling class there. They want to
show off their wealth and hope the world looks the other way at human rights violations that have
occurred and continue to occur. The monetary waste is indefensible, but small change for the Gulf state. Amnesty International has been consistent in its criticism of Qatar for its human rights abuses and has managed to secure commitments from the Qatari authorities on labour reforms. Thousands of workers across a number of World Cup projects are still facing issues such as delayed or unpaid wages, denial of rest days, unsafe working conditions, barriers to changing jobs, and limited access to justice, while the deaths of thousands of workers remain uninvestigated. Amnesty have called for a compensation fund to be set up by both FIFA and Qatar for affected workers.
The human toll of this World Cup is appalling, the financial toll is unjustifiable. And the environmental impact too is irresponsible. Eight modern football stadiums in an area the size of Tipperary. The carbon footprint of that construction in such a small area must be impactful. And what makes the folly so much worse is the simple fact that these structures have no purpose once the football tournament leaves.
In Ireland, we might never get to host a large tournament like a Rugby World Cup, miniscule in size compared to a football world cup. But if we ever do, we need to future proof any investment that
we make. Sports stadiums have to become multi-functional, capable of hosting many different sports and different events. Within Munster alone we have four GAA stadiums with capacities of over 40,000 along with Thomond Park, capacity 26,000. At best, this island can probably support only four top class sporting arenas, two of which are already in Dublin. Casement Park in Belfast is due its redevelopment in early 2023. It would be nice if this latest sporting structure was built in such a way that it could host just about anything. We have missed a trick in the past of not developing multi use stadiums because each sport wants its own shiny