The World Cup: Changing Country’s Laws, One Tournament at a Time

By Kathleen Tang, Assistant Contributor

Since its inception in 1930, the World Cup, a global football (soccer) tournament, has become one of the world’s premier international sporting events. Televised broadcasting of the latest World Cup in South Africa was shown in every country and territory on Earth, reaching over 3.2 billion viewers around the world, almost half of the global population. A recent trend in World Cup host countries, starting with South Africa, has been to choose countries that have not hosted the world cup in several decades. These countries seek prestige and the world’s attention as they take on hosting the multi billion-dollar competition. The upcoming host countries are Brazil in 2014, Russia in 2018, and Qatar in 2022.

As the World Cup has grown in size and influence, its organizing committee, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has had to work more closely with host nation governments. FIFA has even gone so far as changing some of these countries’ laws. This blog post will look at how the World Cup has affected the laws of past and future host countries.

Before choosing a host country, FIFA requires a government guarantee regarding certain legal issues, including, but not limited to: security, visa procedures, labor regulations, customs and tax law, and infrastructure. This alone raises a number of interesting questions. What are the boundaries between the stipulations from a governing body of a sports competition and national sovereignty? To what extent do governments actually need to follow through with these guarantees once they win the bid? What is the enforcement mechanism if governments fail to comply? Does FIFA have a role to play in pressuring countries to comply with international human rights norms? A look at a few of the most recent and upcoming World Cup host countries is illustrative.

South Africa 2010

In 2010, South Africa became the first African nation to host the World Cup. South Africa had to do much preparation work to dispel the doubts about whether or not they could sustain an event of this magnitude. This included building and renovating stadiums and creating new modes of transportation around the country. In 2006 the South African Parliament passed a special law, the 2010 FIFA World Cup Special Measures Act 11 and 12 to ensure these projects, which South Africa had promised FIFA, would be completed. For the duration of the tournament, South Africa suspended some of its constitutional rights. Critics argued this was “to protect FIFA’s cash cow.” These critiques contend that FIFA’s heavy involvement in the management of the World Cup infringes on national sovereignty in the domains of security and infrastructure for the purposes of sponsorship product promotion. Many stadiums are renovated and fenced off so that only FIFA approved products, like hot dogs and Budweiser, can be sold in stadiums, instead of allowing local vendors to sell their products. Aside from the commercial element, the temporary suspension of laws, and more shockingly, constitutional rights, which are usually only suspended in state of war or national emergency, can be a dangerous precedent.

In addition to these preparations, at the request of FIFA, South Africa also created World Cup specific FIFA World Cup courts. 56 World Cup Courts were established across South Africa, staffed with 1,500 personnel including magistrates, prosecutors, public defenders, and interpreters. These courts had jurisdictions over all crimes arising out of the World Cup tournament. These courts had an expedited trial process, in contrast to South Africa’s normal court system, which faces long delays. One case involved two Zimbabweans who robbed a foreign journalist on a Wednesday, were arrested on Thursday, stood trial, and then began 15-year jail sentences on Friday. The National Prosecuting Authority defended the courts, stating it was possible to mount a fair trial in 24 hours. This begs the question—if South Africa has proven that it can hold 24 hour trials for a man who stole two cans of Coke from a FIFA supported lounge, why can’t it do so for the many South African citizens who have to wait years for their day in court?

Brazil 2014 

With the 2014 World Cup around the corner, Brazil has been suffering the same media attacks as South Africa did prior to its hosting. News sources question if Brazil will be able to renovate its stadiums, ensure the security of the tourists and sports fans, and build adequate transportation infrastructure. In addition, Brazil has run into several issues with the guarantees they made FIFA in order to secure the 2014 bid. FIFA has stipulated that Brazil, while hosting the World Cup, must allow the sale of alcohol at stadiums (currently alcohol consumption at sporting event stadiums is prohibited). Another issue is a provision dealing with the Brazilian Government’s liability for any safety problem—the provision establishes that the Brazil, and not FIFA, will assume civil liability for damages arising from any safety-related accident in connection with the tournament. FIFA also contracted to create an area around the tournament venues where only FIFA and its partners have rights to advertise and sell products and services. This brings up issues of freedom of expression and free competition amongst non-official sponsors.  In the past, this exclusion zone has stretched as far as two kilometers from each stadium, within which no local merchant can make any money from World Cup merchandise.

Protesters, who view these requirements as violations of national sovereignty, have staged demonstrations around the new stadiums currently being built. In defense of the FIFA requirements, Jérôme Valcke, FIFA’s General Secretary, stated that FIFA is asking for nothing more or less than it did from past host nation South Africa, or from its next host nation, Russia. He contends it is necessary for host countries to recognize the World Cup as a unique event that requires some domestic law adaptations to ensure its success. However, simply because prior and future countries have consented to changing their laws, does not mean that the World Cup, as a non-governmental sports organization, is justified in modifying a nation’s legal system. In light of the recent tensions between the Brazilian government, its people, and FIFA’s legal requirements, perhaps a more detailed look into the legitimacy of World Cup Law and its justifications is on the horizon.

As evidenced above, the World Cup has the power to change, albeit temporarily, the laws of host countries. The ramifications of these changes of law are not well documented but even a temporary change of law for a sporting event is noteworthy. Although the examples above are instances where FIFA has changed host nation laws for the sake of their sponsors or for the success of the tournament more generally, there is possibility in the future of using the World Cup’s legal clout for social change.

Russia 2018/Qatar 2022

Since the passage of a law in Russia prohibiting “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” FIFA has asked the 2018 World Cup host country to clarify and give more details. FIFA also reminded Russia of the World Cup’s rules against discrimination. However, FIFA could do more if it becomes apparent that Russia breaches the rule of zero tolerance against discrimination based on sexual orientation. A similar situation exists in Qatar regarding intolerance of homosexuality. Whether or not FIFA will do more remains to be seen. But if the actions of the International Olympic Committee are any indication, such international sporting organizations are more interested in financial security than in improving human rights.

The World Cup is unquestionably a unique sporting event that is watched by an international audience on an international stage. As a non-governmental, international association, FIFA, through the World Cup, has managed to temporarily change nation’s laws and will likely continue to do so in the future. However, the motivations behind for these changes and whether or not these changes have benevolent or harmful effects has yet to be well researched. Next summer, Brazil will certainly be an interesting case study of whether or not, “less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup.” FIFA and the World Cup have the power to impose new legal requirements upon sovereign nations. Ideally, in the future, this ability will be used with an eye towards human rights and ensuring a balance between the good of the competition and the good of the host nation.