FIFA's World Cup of Tax Breaks


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All eyes are on Brazil and the World Cup, but Gov. Tarso Genro of Rio Grande do Sul believes the country’s decision to host the World Cup has been “a huge mistake”.

And many of the country’s residents as well as a host of global anti-poverty advocates agree with him. Brazil has been under increasing scrutiny for tax breaks it awarded to the sporting giant FIFA--tax breaks that many believe the country can ill afford given the high concentration of poverty in some of the country’s districts.

According to InspirAction, Christian Aid’s Spanish affiliate, Brazil will give up $530 million in tax revenue to benefit the World Cup’s corporate sponsors such as McDonalds, Budweiser and Johnson & Johnson. The country is allowing corporations to import an array of products from food, medical supplies and promotional materials tax-free, while also exempting seminars, workshops and other cultural activities from taxes.

InspirAction and other advocates have said the millions saved by FIFA and its sponsors through these breaks should be used to benefit the poor, not corporations and their shareholders. Foregone World Cup tax revenue could help lift 37 million people out of extreme poverty and help improve basic services. Instead, FIFA, a supposed non-profit organization, is reporting historic profits while leaving the host country to foot the bill.

The bidding to receive games such as the World Cup or the Olympics is always intense. During the publicity runs surrounding the bidding, potential host countries and the sponsoring organization tout the economic benefits including increased tourism dollars. Unfortunately, economic benefits that arise from the events often are as short-lived as the event itself. The economic burden, however, can be lasting.

In 2010, South Africa hosted the World Cup. FIFA reported that it received $3.8 billion tax-free in revenue and that year was “the most profitable in FIFA history”. However, South Africa had a $3.1 billion net loss from hosting the games. The same year, the number of tourists in South Africa dropped by half compared to previous years. The displacement of usual tourists is a reoccurring event in World Cup-host countries including Germany, China and Korea. Similarly, the European Tours Operations (EOTA) conducted a study in 2006 of countries that hosted the Olympics, which showed tourism declined the year pre and post-Olympics.

Host countries also have the financial burden of maintaining specially built stadiums. German economist Wolfgang Maennig conducted a study which found that the utilization of accommodation actually fell by 11.1 percent in Berlin and 14.3 percent in Munich during the 2006 World Cup. In Brazil’s case, the country spent $300 million in public funds constructing Arena Amazonia, which Brazilian officials portrayed as an investment into the Manaus’ economy and tourism in spite of the research indicating otherwise.  There has been speculation that the 42,000-capacity Arena Amazonia will be turned into a detention centre after the games as sporting events in the small town rarely attract 1,000  people. Neither a huge stadium nor a detention center is likely to boost tourism figures for Manaus, despite what officials are saying.

Mayor of Porto Alegre, Jose Fortunati, defended the corporate tax breaks and said his city would not have been able to take part in the games without them.  This reasoning still doesn’t sit well with much of the Brazilian public. Former Brazilian footballer, manager and now politician with the Brazilian Socialist Party, Romário de Souza Faria, noted that FIFA is projected to make $1.8 billion in profits, which should generate $450 million in tax for public services, but FIFA won’t pay anything.

Hosting the World Cup and other international sporting events surely is a public relations boon. But underneath the games’ hype, there are serious questions about who really benefits—questions that are worth broad public debate.

Two years from now, Brazil is set to do this all over again when it hosts the summer Olympics and offers the same sort of tax breaks to the Olympic Committee. It seems that now is as good a time as any to address these issues.  

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