From June 14 through July 15, the World Cup takes over television sets across the planet. Of the 32 national teams that participate, only one will take home the title. Despite their weeks of competition—and the months and years of effort leading up to the Cup—the winners pocket a sum that is surprisingly small.
This is why winning the world’s most viewed sporting event—FIFA claims one billion people tuned in to see Germany beat Argentina in the 2014 Final—isn’t necessarily a financial jackpot. (At least, not for the guys kicking the ball.)
The Prize Money
FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) will award a total of $400 million in prize money to the 32 teams competing at the 2018 World Cup. The 16 who fail to reach the knockout rounds collect $8 million each; the awards then increase until the champ pockets $38 million. (You can head over to HowMuch.net for a visualization of how all the prizes play out.)
$38 million is, at first glance, a significant number. (Albeit less than the Champions League winner receives each season—they can potentially collect over $60 million.)
Then the math begins.
The Cost of Competing
Let’s say your team actually wins the Cup and takes home the $38 million. Presumably, some of this money will reach the fellows on the field. Each team has a 23-man roster, which works out to $1.65 million per player. (If your team failed to advance and only received $8 million, the sum drops to under $350,000 apiece.)
Of course, national teams are under no obligation to pass along all of this cash. For their victory in 2014, the German team received $35 million in prize money. They in turn gave each player a bonus of roughly $408,000, meaning about a quarter of the prize money—less than $10 million—went to those on the roster.
In fairness to management, Germany had bills to pay. The team lived in Brazil for a month and received top accommodations, food, and pampering, which included:
-33 support staffers (doctors, physiotherapists, press agents, a video department, information-technology consultants, and cooks)
-A training ground/beach resort specifically constructed for the team. It has since been converted into a hotel: Campo Bahia boasts rooms that start at just under $300 per night and rise to $2,000 should you require a private villa.
Truly, it’s the perfect getaway for Brazilians looking to be reminded of the most traumatic loss in their nation’s history:
Of course, participating in the Cup is just the tip of the fiscal iceberg. A nation needs to run both men’s and women’s feeder programs from the youth level on up to ensure they generate the players capable of qualifying for and then potentially winning a World Cup. There are also additional regional qualifying payments for players. (For instance, members of the U.S. men’s national team could theoretically collect more than $250,000 in a non-World Cup year, though that would require them to play in up to 20 exhibition games and consistently thump the competition so they could keep pocketing win bonuses.)
Frankly, Germany’s players didn’t really need the money anyway. Take Toni Kroos, a key contributor in 2014 who recently did this:
Kroos has won the Champions League three straight seasons with Real Madrid. In 2017, each Real player reportedly collected a roughly $1.7 million bonus from their team. (This was for the Champions League victory coupled with also winning La Liga, a feat they failed to achieve in 2016 or 2018.) And Kroos is doing just fine even if they don’t win, as his pay has been reported at over $27 million per season—more than the prize money awarded to 30 of the 32 World Cup teams.
In general, players now operate at a financial level that crushes the World Cup.
The Valuable Game
Panama is a bargain at just $9 million (one of 10 teams with lineups worth under $100 million). A $38 million prize would be a genuine boon for these nations’ programs. But they aren’t likely to claim it, because seven nations’ rosters are valued at over $700 million, including three worth a billion or more. (France is #1 at $1.1 billion, followed by Spain, Brazil, Germany, England, Belgium and Argentina.)
Combined, these seven countries have won 14 of the 20 World Cups. ($380 million Uruguay won in 1930 and 1950, while Italy—which managed to miss qualifying for the 2018 Cup altogether—has the other four.)
“In Europe, we have lots of competitive leagues,” Stefan Szymanski, the economist whose books include Soccernomics, explained to RCL. This means that soccer is free of the salary caps in American sports. If Paris Saint-Germain wants to shell out hundreds of millions to acquire Neymar from Barcelona, they damn well can. (And another team can, in turn, buy Neymar for an even higher price, which PSG can then use to acquire the next hot prospect.) The result is that, according to Szymanski, soccer is generally “not a profitable business” on the club level because most of the money collected is poured right back into the players.
Yet come the World Cup, both players and their national teams compete for a relative pittance.
Why? Three main reasons:
You’re Stuck With Your Country (Mostly). Maybe one day Neymar will tell his Brazilian teammates: “Belgium just made me a better offer.” Or Germany will decide all those goalkeepers backing up Manuel Neuer should be shipped to other countries in return for some solid defenders. For now, however, if you’re going to play, you play for the nation where you were born—or at least have established roots. (Brazilian-turned-Spaniard Diego Costa is a notable exception.) For now, nations mostly make the best of what they have, and so German players gladly accepted that $400k bonus for winning the Cup instead of putting out feelers to see what Argentina’s paying. (It’s a different case with managers, however—Argentine Jorge Sampaoli found great success coaching neighboring Chile only to switch back to his homeland, where his own players openly mutinied against him mid-Cup.)
Exposure. By hosting a World Cup, a nation ensures it’s being seen by the rest of the planet. This provides a remarkable showcase for a player’s talents. Take Colombia’s James Rodriguez. He scorched the 2014 World Cup with six goals. Real Madrid immediately paid Monaco roughly $100 million to acquire him. (James has since been “loaned” to Bayern Munich for two seasons for just $15 million—he has publicly stated he hopes he never has to return to Madrid.)
Of course, there’s a limit to this. Soccer is such an international game already that many stars can’t burn much brighter—nobody came away from Portugal-Spain saying, “Huh, apparently this Ronaldo guy can play a little.”
And this leads to the World Cup’s real allure—one that’s difficult to quantify but impossible to ignore.
Pride. The unique stage and every-four-years nature of the World Cup makes an outstanding performance at one an achievement for the ages. Diego Maradona’s remarkable run in 1986 continues to make him a legend in Argentine eyes, forgiving his cocaine abuse, doping, and general squandered potential.
In short: Every four years, the World Cup convinces the world’s best players to show off their talents at a massive discount from their normal rate, delighting the rest of the planet. (An additional example of the undervaluing: FIFA says they pay $8,530 a day in compensation to club teams for each player that is absent to attend the Cup. Multiplying that day rate by 365 works out to just over $3 million—a solid sum, but not even a tenth of the money truly elite players command.)
This is, needless to say, a remarkably good deal for FIFA and its backers.
Naturally, they risk screwing it up.
Corruption: National Version. Before winning the Liberian presidency, George Weah was one of the best soccer players alive. (Indeed, he was the first African to be named the World Player of the Year.)
This is what he says about the way most African national teams are run: “Former players govern European football while those without passion or knowledge of the game rule in Africa. Footballers rather than officials should travel business class on flights because they are the ones going to play.”
Executives valuing their personal comfort over their players’ is by no means limited to Africa. When Lionel Messi briefly quit playing for Argentina, many fans were saddened but felt there would be a real benefit: Argentina’s Football Association would finally have to clean up its act. This would end its general deceit (witness an election ending in a 38-38 tie when there are only 75 members) and complete instability (in the last four years they’ve had four managers—after this Cup that number appears likely to increase).
How a team is run matters almost as much as its talent. Look at the different fates of the Boatengs. Both were born to a father from Ghana and a German mother. Jerome plays for Germany, winning the Cup with them in 2014. (Presumably, he had a pleasant stay at Campo Bahia.) His half-brother Kevin-Prince played for Ghana. In 2014, Ghana had to fly in $3 million cash so each player could receive at least $100,000 before they took the field—they were convinced they wouldn’t get paid otherwise.
To the shock of no one, Ghana did not advance in 2014 nor did it qualify for this World Cup.
Of course, for real corruption you need to look to FIFA itself.
FIFA: Game of Thieves
That $400 million isn’t all the money FIFA expects to collect. Estimates suggest they could rake in $6 billion—15 times their prize money—from ticket and merchandise sales as well as broadcast rights. This can result in a healthy score: The 2006 World Cup in Germany earned FIFA a $700 million profit.
Yet FIFA experienced a $369 million net loss in 2016.
Why? Frankly, all the hands in the cookie jar finally caught up with them. The most cinematic indulgence came when FIFA spent nearly $30 million on 2014’s United Passions. Starring Tim Roth and Gerard Depardieu, it is a film about the genius of FIFA executives. (Really.)
To the surprise of no one who forced themselves to watch that trailer, it earned a rating of 0% from Rotten Tomatoes. Its worldwide gross came in well under $500K and Box Office Mojo credited it with earning a mere $607 in the United States.
With FIFA’s general sleaziness and questionable choice of hosts in Russia this year and Qatar in 2022, advertisers are increasingly wary of the World Cup. (Apparently unconcerned with these ethical niceties, Chinese companies have been stepping in to fill some of the void.)
FIFA is attempting to enter a more honorable era, but its past refuses to enter the past. Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter has been banned six years for corruption, yet still receives over $3 million in compensation each year. Indeed, he elected to put himself front and center as Putin’s personal guest at the Cup (which he happily discussed on camera).
What the World Cup Might Become
Back in 2010, Jose Mourinho said of the Champions League Final: “This game is the most important in the world. It is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams, who can’t buy the best players.”
Eight years later that remains a minority opinion, but it doesn’t seem far-fetched that players might one day decide they value the professional games that fill their bank accounts far more than the ones for national pride that just (barely) cover expenses.
They can look to basketball as a model. American NBA players are honored to represent the U.S. at the Olympics… for a time. Then they often focus on their pro careers exclusively. LeBron James and Kevin Love won gold together in 2012—in 2016 they both turned down a chance at another so they could focus on making a run at a second title with the Cavaliers. (The Cavs paid Love over $20 million each season and James more than $30 million.)
Indeed, the NBA stars most devoted to the Olympic team are often those with the least postseason success—witness Carmelo Anthony’s three golds and a bronze.
With the exception of Johan Cruyff in 1978, soccer stars in their prime simply don’t turn down Cups. (And the Dutch icon had a good excuse—he’d been traumatized by an armed kidnapping.)
“I would give all my personal records to be world champion,” Lionel Messi proclaimed ahead of the World Cup in 2014. And his are truly remarkable personal records. He once scored an absurd 91 goals in a season (a mark neither Ronaldo nor anyone else has approached). At 31 years old, he holds virtually every career record La Liga has to offer and has twice won a Treble, as Barcelona took the league, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League.
Of course, Messi failed to become World Cup champ in 2014. Instead, German manager Joachim Löw told substitute Mario Götze to “show the world you are better than Messi.” And for one night he was:
Let’s be clear: It was only one night. Bayern Munich had purchased Götze from Borussia Dortmund for $43 million in 2013. They sold him back for less than $30 million three years later. Löw has expressed regret about the Messi comparison becoming public knowledge, feeling it put too much pressure on Götze. (In fairness to Mario, he has suffered from what are described as rare metabolic disturbances, limiting his ability to play.)
Whose career would you rather have? And whose bank account? Messi is worth an estimated $400 million—Götze rather less.
The World Cup will always matter. But players may look at how much they’re sacrificing so Sepp Blatter can buy himself nice things and recall how Zlatan Ibrahimovic put things in perspective when his Swedish team missed the 2014 Cup:
“One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”