What we learned from watching the World Cup

World Cup semi final match between Croatia and England in Moscow, Russia.

Billions of people worldwide have tuned in to watch the men’s 2018 FIFA World Cup, including many here at Brookings. The month-long football—or, soccer—tournament taking place in Russia will conclude this weekend and as it stands now the field of 32 teams has been narrowed to just Croatia and France competing for the championship.

But even after all the matches are done and a winner is crowned, there is still a lot to be learned from the World Cup. Brookings scholars and other experts have written at length about how the tournament and other major sporting events relate to economics, globalization, social progress, and nationalism. Here, we’d like to highlight some of their analysis.

The World Cup’s role in international relations and diplomacy

When the soccer federations of Mexico, Canada, and the United States submitted a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup, Arturo Sarukhan, a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program and former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., explained why the event would be about much more than soccer. Following President Trump’s campaign for a border wall and his critiques of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a joint tournament would be, in Sarukhan’s words, “a public diplomacy boon for the three countries.”

Holding the competition in North America would also leverage the stadium and transportation infrastructure that already exists and create an opportunity for Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. to “become better neighbors” and “create a sense of common purpose.”

Since Sarukhan’s article was published, the joint bid was selected and the men’s World Cup will be held in North America for the first time since 1994.


Brookings scholars find that competing in major competitions like the World Cup can also improve national unity. Citing data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, Karim Foda and Mariama Sow describe a connection between soccer and nation-building, and evidence that countries that played in the African Cup of Nations tournament “experienced significantly less conflict” in the months immediately following than countries that did not qualify.

Foda and Sow also call attention to examples of African players using their platforms to promote domestic reforms in their home countries and the effect qualifying for the World Cup can have on pan-Africanism. On the latter issue they write: “research on the political discourse within soccer coverage in newspapers suggests that, depending on national contexts, pride in qualifying for the World Cup can manifest itself as pride for Africa.”

“The World Cup exposes the limits of globalization”

Despite the diplomatic opportunities the World Cup offers, the global competition has seen some dark moments as well. Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at the Brookings India Center, recently explained how international soccer exposes racial and nationalist sentiment from fans and players alike.

“In addition to stoking nationalism, soccer has a long history of bringing out some of the worst in ethnic and religious stereotypes. For example, opposing fans of traditionally Jewish soccer clubs—Tottenham Hotspur in England or Ajax in the Netherlands—have been known to make hissing sounds that are supposed to mimic gas chambers. In Germany, certain soccer hooligan groups reportedly cooperate with neo-Nazi groups, including on weapons training.”

Jaishankar notes that steps have been taken to address this racism, but the problem persists, including at this summer’s competition. And while soccer’s international popularity could lead to increased religious and ethnic tolerance, that effect appears to have limits.

“If international players—part of a rarefied elite that travels the globe, speaks multiple languages, and plies its trade in several countries—can fall back so easily on nationalism or racial stereotypes, perhaps it is time to dismiss with gauzy notions of inevitable universalism,” Jaishankar concludes.

What’s the economic gamble in hosting a major sporting event?

In his recent book, Circus Maximus, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist depicts the radical upsurge in what it costs for cities to host the World Cup, Olympics, and other mega-sporting events. As he describes it, these affairs have turned into “exhibits of excess” with multi-billion dollar price tags and bidding processes almost as fierce as the competitions themselves.

Circus Maximums, details the short- and long-term economic impact hosting the World Cup has on cities, corruption in FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, and how these events reinforce existing inequality in their host communities. Listen to Zimbalist describe some of those economic realities in a clip from an episode of the Brookings Cafeteria podcast.

Circus Maximus was published by the Brookings Institution Press and named one of The Economist’s Best Books of 2015. You can order your copy here, and listen to Zimbalist’s full interview on the Brookings Cafeteria podcast.

Interested in this intersection of sports and public policy? Check out more research from Brookings scholars on the federal funding of stadiums and demographics of cities with Major League Baseball teams.