In politics and life, as in sports, the ball is round

Unexpected lessons for those trying to ride World Cup wave


You can't help but feel for Brazil.

Whether or not you are a football fan, and regardless of whether you were rooting for some other country to win the World Cup this year, it is hard not to find the manner in which the host nation crashed out of the competition last week heart-wrenching.

"Obliterated, eliminated, humiliated," was how one commentator described the shocking 7-1 drubbing the German juggernaut unleashed and the awe this inspired.

It is safe to wager your savings, and perhaps even your son's, that Brazilians will be bemoaning that stunning defeat for a long time to come.

In Singapore, as everywhere else, the game was the talk of the town.

It even seemed to crowd out the speech delivered in Parliament the previous day by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on the Central Provident Fund scheme.

The DPM had delivered one of the clearest expositions of how the Government invests Singaporeans' CPF savings to offer "fair and safe" returns in a sustainable way. He went into considerable detail, citing a string of numbers - 2.5, 3.5, 4, 5, 6 - to explain various CPF interest rates and how these are derived.

Given the controversy stirred up over the CPF in recent weeks, this speech warranted attention. But I suspect the only numbers that registered on most minds the day after was, yes, 7-1.

So, the minister will have to reprise his performance, perhaps many times over, breaking down his message into simpler, more digestible bites, if he is to get it across.

He might take a leaf from the series of advertisements featuring popular radio personality Brian Richmond. These sought to explain the details of the Pioneer Generation Package through football analogies and cameo appearances by soccer legends pioneers would recognise.

It was a valiant effort. But the odds were stacked against poor Mr Richmond. The advertisements were repeated over and over again, seemingly to drum the message home. But after a while, the man with the velvet voice began to sound like someone who shows up at the wrong party and persists in going on about a subject no one else is focused on at the time.

It left me wondering how much of what he said registered with his audience who, in the small hours of the morning, probably just wanted to get on with the football action.

But if this shot didn't quite hit the net, then you might say an own goal was scored by the National Council on Problem Gambling. Its anti-gambling advertisement, with the by-now infamous "my dad bet all my savings on Germany" line, has been lampooned on talk shows and tabloids around the world. No doubt those behind the campaign must be hoping for Argentina to beat Germany in tomorrow morning's final, if only to spare themselves another round of abuse.

While clearly well-intentioned, one wonders if the heavy dose of public pronouncements was necessary or even wise during a soccer game at 4am. Indeed, the one resounding thought I was left with was simply this: How much taxpayers' money was spent to produce and air these television campaigns?

Interestingly, few commercial organisations - neither Nike nor Nespresso - chose to advertise at the time. Perhaps it was because they figured that the audience on paid subscription channels in the wee hours of the morning might not warrant the huge expense? If so, it might well be asked how our public-sector organisations came to a different conclusion.

Besides, if indeed there were public funds for such spending, why could they not have been tapped to help cover some of the cost of providing coverage of more, if not all, of the World Cup games on free-to-air channels, as was the case in the past before media liberalisation?

The idea is not as outlandish as some might make out. A report in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday, for example, recounted how Argentina's 42 million football-crazy citizens were able to follow the intense drama of the penalty shoot-out against the Dutch that helped them clinch a spot in the final.

This was thanks to a bold move by their President Cristina Kirchner's government to strip lucrative broadcasting rights from a private-sector partnership in 2009, to insist on free viewership of local soccer matches for the entire country.

Some, not least the rational economic men and women who read the business daily, might scoff at this as Latin American populism run riot.

So, the report added: "Watching World Cup soccer may not be a basic human right. But leaders across the world recognise that a lot of people view it as such, and that makes the World Cup a political opportunity. In Thailand, a military junta that seized power this spring persuaded a private company - which had planned to air only 22 World Cup games free - to expand that number to all 64 matches. The new leaders called it a strategy to 'return happiness to the Thai people'.

"In countries that agree on little else, there is agreement that World Cup games ought to be freely viewable. The list of countries where the 2014 World Cup appeared on public or state television, or free on network television, includes Russia, England, Portugal, Venezuela, Ecuador, China, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Greece, Switzerland and Poland.

"Even countries that didn't qualify, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Bulgaria, all agree that public broadcasters ought to televise free World Cup games."

Why should things be so different in Singapore? Here, alas, calls for the authorities to step in to help bring the beautiful game to homes over free-to-air channels were dismissed as populist, anti free-market heresy.

Yet, in the end, considerable public funds were spent to provide free screenings at community clubs and sporting venues when it became clear how popular doing so would be after soccer fever hit the island in the goal-packed early rounds of the competition.

All that public expense would have been better used to allow more people to watch the matches at home with their families and friends. More would have benefitted, with probably less of an impact on work and productivity and fewer spurious medical leave certificates taken.

Perhaps the Media Development Authority should have a rethink. It has four years to put things right to prevent a repeat of a situation where over-zealous private competition leads to runaway bids and fees, which result in the public having less access to World Cup games than they did before media liberalisation.

As World Cup 2014 comes to a close, one other political lesson might be drawn from the dramatic turn of events in Brazil. That is the danger of political leaders seeking to ride on a wave of public euphoria for electoral gain.

Just ask President Dilmar Rousseff. With an election set for October, the Brazilian leader now faces public anger over the billions that her government spent to host the competition, only to see the country's team go crashing spectacularly out of the competition. Of course, she did not expect it to turn out this way, as no one saw a 7-1 mauling coming, with the incumbent's popularity taking a beating in the process.

As they say in football circles, the ball is round; things rarely go perfectly to plan once the whistle is blown and the action begins.

So, those who assume rather blithely that all the fanfare from Singapore hosting the South-east Asian Games followed by the celebrations to mark the Republic's 50th anniversary would make next year a good time for the ruling party to go romping to the polls might want to remember, the ball is round.

Follow Warren Fernandez on Twitter @theSTeditor