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When FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, chose Brazil to host this year's World Cup it seemed a safe bet. Brazilians are crazy for the so-called beautiful game, and they play it with a flair that gives it much of its beauty.
So the ugly spectacle of street protests and tear gas before, during and after this year's opening match on Thursday has been a shocker to FIFA and sports fans worldwide. Brazilians protesting soccer is about as incongruous as the French protesting cheese.
But that is how things have played out. With the World Cup in progress -- and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro just two years off -- virtually nothing is going as planned.
Labor unions, indigenous peoples and large swaths of the general public have staged angry marches to protest the billions going into sports facilities while needs in education, transit and other areas go unmet. Meanwhile, striking transit workers snarled traffic in San Paulo.
Underscoring all these demonstrations, polls show a steady decline in support for the Cup. In 2008, 79% of Brazilians backed it. Today only 48% do.
If there is any good news it is that Brazil's struggles, and its $11 billion in expenditures, might convince other nations of the folly of lavish sports bashes that leave behind white elephants.
Early indications from the 2022 Winter Olympics -- the next big event looking for a site -- suggest that is already happening. Stockholm, Sweden, and Krakow, Poland, have already dropped out. Oslo, Norway, is having second thoughts and Lviv, Ukraine, is unlikely for obvious reasons. That would leave just two options -- Beijing, China, and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The countries that are dropping out used to be the bedrock of the Winter Games. But they look at the fortunes needed for an event that lasts a couple of weeks and are concluding that they have better uses for their money.
Arguments once used to justify big expenditures -- jump-starting economies, raising national profiles, leaving lasting infrastructure -- are losing their luster in the harsh light of reality.
Any goodwill from this year's $50 billion Sochi games was quickly erased by Russia's move into Ukraine. The 2004 Olympics in Athens piled even more debt on a Greek nation barreling its way toward a debt crisis. And the 2002 World Cup, jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea, did little to soothe the growing tensions between those two countries.
What they, and other similar events, did do was to leave behind underused sports facilities.
It's time for FIFA and the International Olympic Committee to get wise to the changing landscape. They can turn to a dwindling number of countries, mostly autocratic ones such as Russia and China, that are willing to spend excessively. Or they can insist on reasonable budgets.
Olympic and World Cup venues need not be sporting palaces; in many cases they can be existing arenas. And ceremonies need not be opulent spectacles.
By returning these events to a proper scale, the governing bodies will ensure themselves of ample bidders. And they will help ensure that any crying will be caused by joy, and not by tear gas.
June 16, 2014