World Cup can lead to global engagement

Students are capable of watching sporting events and engaging with the world. Skillful teachers can help students make those connections.

I recently saw this provocative magazine cover about the World Cup:


The lead article from The Economist, titled Beautiful game, dirty business, is worth a read. It’s just 12 paragraphs long, so it’s a manageable length for young students who want to start learning about the world.

The article notes that “Nearly half of humanity will watch at least part of the World Cup, which kicks off in Brazil on June 12th.”

So these games that started yesterday are important. And it matters what people think about the World Cup (and the questionable officiating in the matches). But if we focus just on the 90-minute show on the field, we miss an opportunity to learn deeper issues about our world.

The lead article in The Economist goes on to ask these questions about FIFA, the governing body of the World Cup:

Why on earth did anyone think holding the World Cup in the middle of the Arabian summer [in Qatar in 2022] was a good idea? Why is football so far behind other sports like rugby, cricket and tennis in using technology to doublecheck refereeing decisions? And why is the world’s greatest game led by such a group of mediocrities, notably Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s boss since 1998?

Like most American students, I’d not heard of Sebb Blatter before a few days ago, when I watched a brilliant 13-minute piece of commentary by comedian John Oliver about the World Cup and FIFA.  I’m embedding the video below.  It’s tremendous.  It’s definitely worth watching because it is both informative and bitingly funny.

[But be advised, Oliver uses some salty language.]

In the process, Oliver also makes extremely well-researched points about the corruption of FIFA.


After watching this video (and watching it again with my wife, who also found it extremely well done), I looked up the “World Cup Courts” from the South African World Cup in 2010. I wondered if Oliver was exaggerating when he talked about the swift trials and long prison sentences for people accused of committing minor crimes in South Africa during the World Cup.

I did not follow the 2010 games that closely, and I’d not heard of the “FIFA World Cup Courts.”  But using Oliver’s video as a springboard, I did some quick research and learned that John Oliver’s statement of the situation is accurate.  The New York Times published an article titled Swift and Severe Justice at World Cup Courts, and NPR ran a similar piece called South Africa’s World Cup Court: Sudden Justice.

If we can use John Oliver’s compelling video (or at least the points he makes in the video) to get students asking questions about things that matter — due process rights, or treatment of workers in Qatar, for example — we will have succeeded in using the World Cup as a lever to move students away from seeing sports as mere bread and circuses.

[The genesis of this blog post is that one of my former students emailed me a few days ago, asking for my thoughts about the World Cup. He recalled that I had referred to sports as “bread and circuses” when we were learning about the Roman Empire. My point was that sports are often used to distract people from public issues of social justice that deserve our attention.]

Students should also consider who can afford tickets for World Cup matches.  And they should think about why so many poor people in Brazil are protesting the World Cup.  Here are the search results for “World Cup Protests” — run the search yourself and read a few articles about the protests:


John Oliver’s brilliant video addresses this question early on, when he wonders why people in Brazil — who love soccer so much — would possibly protest the World Cup coming to Brazil.

Oliver notes that poor people are protesting because Brazil has spent more than $11 billion on preparing for the World Cup while tens of millions of its people live in poverty and could benefit from more spending on social services.

One final note: I did a quick search for “Bread and Circuses and World Cup,” and came up with this recent article about Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff (do most students even know that Brazil’s president is a woman?).  The article discusses some of the infrastructure problems that Brazil faces.

It’s called Brazil: Bread and circuses, but precious few aqueducts.

Here’s how the article opens:

In Brazil’s northeast, affected by drought and archaic land ownership, many miles of huge new irrigation canals lie empty, the naked concrete cracking under a relentless sun. Once the promise of prosperity, and clean, reliable drinking water for 12 million people in an area the size of Great Britain, the $4 billion project is now over budget and behind schedule. Meanwhile lawyers argue, crops wither and cattle die.

The problem of not enough clean water made me think of the 11-year old winner of the Google Doodle contest, who said she was motivated to make her design when she learned that there are people in the world who don’t have access to clean water to drink.  Here’s her winning Google Doodle:

google water

Students need to spend sustained time learning about the problems facing our world.

It’s fine to watch the World Cup (or the NBA Finals, or whatever sport grabs your attention), but those sporting events — and the time and money we invest in them — should become a vehicle for learning about the world.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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