Hosting the World Cup means hosting progress

Sultan Althari
Sultan Althari
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No other sport comes close to football’s global reach. American football failed to cross the Atlantic. Cricket struggles to extend beyond the confines of the old British Empire. US baseball is limited to select pockets in Asia and Latin America. Sure, Golf is global, but it’s niche. Football is both practical and accessible. From the chancelleries of Germany to the slums of Kenya, the sport is watched everywhere you can get a television signal and played wherever you can purchase a round ball.

The most significant event in the global sporting calendar, the FIFA World Cup, concluded its latest iteration in Qatar. The tournament produced some of the most captivating matchups and biggest upsets in recent history. The 2022 World Cup marked several firsts. It was the first time a World Cup had been held in an Arab and Muslim-majority country. It was the first time the Cup had been held mid-season during the winter, and, perhaps most importantly, it was the first time that the Cup had been used as such a centerpiece of national development.

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These firsts beg the question of whether the World Cup is truly global – the short answer: not entirely. The idea of bringing the World Cup to the world is only right. Hosting the World Cup begets progress – cross-sectoral national development – unlike any other sporting event. FIFA, the body governing international football, should harness the power of the tournament to amplify and sustain global development. The Middle East is not only inundated with football fans but also finds itself home to some of the world’s most ambitious socio-economic transformation programs. If the World Cup is ever to be held in the name of progress, Saudi Arabia’s potential joint bid with Egypt and Greece for the 2030 tournament poses as the perfect opportunity. A decision is not due until March 2024. The onus is on FIFA to fully grasp the magnitude of positive change at stake.

Hosting a quadrennial sporting frenzy that attracts millions of visitors and over four billion eyeballs isn’t an easy feat. Success on the pitch hinges on developmental progress off it. Both poles harness the reputation-enhancing and revenue-generating power of football.

Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s fastest growing economy boasting a population of 36 million, of which nearly two-thirds are under the age of 35. Tourism in the country last year peaked as it reported more than 93 million domestic and international visits. These figures suggest fertile soil for a World Cup driven by – and premised on – an ambitious project of youth-oriented reform: namely, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

The glaring sunshine of publicity that comes with hosting these events leaves little margin for error. And with increased publicity comes increased scrutiny – Qatar was certainly no exception. A litany of charges was leveled against the host nation, ranging from mistreating migrant workers to tournament-driven carbon emissions. As hallow as they may seem, those charges are largely a function of Western trends: diminishing expectations, shrinking visions and defensive nationalism. Qatar, not unlike its Gulf neighbors, bucked the trend.

But what do countries stand to gain from hosting the World Cup? The short answer is plenty. The tournament unifies the levers of public policy towards the goal of successfully hosting the world in your backyard. Behind the success of key performance indicators is an equally meaningful – yet less quantifiable— metric. The World Cup’s impact transcends a measurable return on investment in the form of a tourism boom, job creation, and an influx of foreign direct investment. At the most fundamental level, hosting the quadrennial World Cup is a mindset shift: host nations place emphasize strategic, long-term planning over immediate short-term interests. With this strategic outlook at the helm of governance, youth employ a similar lens on a micro level. Byproducts range from more fulfilling careers to soft power projection and even a collective passion for public service. This is the gray, narrative-shaping area where policies evolve, empower, inspire, and transform – an area often lost in the statistical mind of your average policy wonk.

But that doesn’t change the fact that hosting the World Cup means opening a window to the world. The challenge is to ensure the onlookers’ view accurately reflects national values, culture, heritage, and ambition at scale. As kickoff edges closer, host nations harness an unprecedented national will to eliminate overlap in services, combat corruption, empower youth, reform legislation, and inspire their next generation through the excellence of execution. Such progress starts way before kickoff, and certainly doesn’t end when the 18-karat cup is lifted. This is the power of the FIFA World Cup.

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