HOSTING THE WORLD CUP: GOALS AND OWN-GOALS

The World Cup starts tomorrow. And as many of you will know, watching the event — or being married to someone who does — is an emotionally exhilarating and exhausting experience that lasts for weeks. Hosting the World Cup, meanwhile, is a hugely expensive logistical nightmare for the countries that do it. And yet every four years countries vie like crazy, both above and below board, to land the event.


Why? Well, from a geopolitical perspective — since we are, after all, politics nerds — here are a few upsides and downsides of hosting the most popular sporting event in the world.

The economic benefits are meager but conveniently concentrated: Killjoy economists say that the World Cup doesn’t net much for GDP. Most of the money spent on infrastructure goes to stadiums that are hard to run at a profit once the tournament is over, and while an influx of tourists provides a short-term boost, it leaves little lasting economic benefit. That said, funneling lucrative and easily-inflated stadium contracts to politically-connected firms is a nice way to keep your squad on side.

The political effects can cut both ways: Holding a successful event like this can be a source of national pride that demonstrates a government’s capacity and boosts its image. Some research even shows that when home teams win, incumbents get a boost at the polls.

But the event can also be a political liability. Even in futebol-crazy Brazil, thousands of people hit the streets in 2014 to protest wasteful spending on stadiums for that year’s World Cup under banners that asked “World Cup for Whom?” Those protests, mind you, were part of a swell of anti-establishment sentiment that ultimately led Brazil into its current political and economic crisis. No such outcome in Russia is conceivable, mind you — Putin’s 82 percent approval rating makes it hard for the beleaguered opposition to even take a shot on goal at the moment.

Burnishing the global bona fides? Sporting events like the World Cup are also used to project power or newfound geopolitical influence. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 were seen as China’s 21st century coming-out party. And when Putin first lobbied to land the World Cup ten years ago, that was his vision as well.

But scoring a big sporting event can only go so far. Russia’s international actions — war in Ukraine, doping in the Olympics, alleged meddling in US and European elections — have tarnished its image. A poll last year showed that majorities in just three countries view Russia positively these days.

Will hosting this year’s World Cup help? Doubtful. For Putin’s critics the event will shine a light on the corrupted, rule-breaking, revisionist regime they see when they look at the Kremlin. For Putin’s supporters, who see him staking out an assertive role for Russia in an increasingly multipolar world, it’ll be proof that no matter what Russia does right, the haters will still hate. ​

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.