The first time Brazil hosted the World Cup in 1950, there was a sense of national optimism. The country was experimenting with democracy and the economy was coming to life. Victory in the global soccer tournament seemed all but guaranteed for the confident host nation.
Victory didn’t materialize — Brazil lost to Uruguay in the finals. But the country’s economic zeitgeist persisted into the next decade.
Sixty-four years later, the World Cup is back in Brazil. Again, the country seems to be at an economic crossroads, according to Michael Reid, a columnist for the The Economist and author of Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power, which went on sale this week.
“When Brazil was awarded the World Cup back in 2007, there was the assumption in the government and in the country that it would set the seal on Brazil’s rise,” he told Fusion during a recent book-promotion tour in Washington, D.C. “Fast forward seven years and the situation is very different. The economy has almost ground to a halt.”
Could the World Cup help revitalize Brazil’s economy, or is it part of the problem? Reid says the answer is complicated. World Cup preparations have cost the country $11 billion and have caused considerable discontent in a country whose citizenry is starting to demand more from its government.
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Nine cents. That’s the amount that Brazilian officials raised bus fare last year, sparking massive street protests in cities across the country.
But it wasn’t just that. Brazil was spending billions of dollars to build stadiums for the World Cup at a time when the growing middle class was demanding more investment in public services, including transportation, healthcare and education.
“In at least four host cities, those stadiums will be white elephants [after the World Cup ends]; there’s no local football team capable of getting more than two or three thousand fans into a stadium for a local game,” Reid said. A much-scrutinized stadium in the Amazonian city of Manaus, for example, will seat roughly 46,000 spectators, even though local soccer clubs tend to attract only a fraction of that.
There have been some laudable accomplishments, too. But not enough to satisfy most Brazilians, Reid says. In Sao Paulo, for example, the government built a new stadium in an impoverished part of the city, but didn’t expanded metro access to the area, which will only exacerbate the city’s already-grinding transit problems.
“Brazil collects between 36 and 38 percent of its gross domestic product through taxation, which is a percentage similar to that of the United States,” he said. “But Brazil spends too little on public infrastructure and investment. It spends too little on public health… too little on sanitation. That’s because it spends too much on other things—particularly the pork barrel spending generated by the political system.”
Misplaced government priorities have likely impacted Brazilians’ perception of the World Cup. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Brazilians say hosting the tournament is bad for their country — not exactly what you’d expect from the country that gave us Pelé.
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The World Cup was brought to Brazil by popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but the responsibility of executing a successful tournament fell on the shoulders of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.
Now the outcome of the games could impact her political future, according to some pundits. The country holds presidential elections in October, and Rousseff’s approval rating has dipped below 50 percent.
“The World Cup has served to crystallize a deep-rooted sense of discontent in Brazil,” Reid said.
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But won’t the World Cup generate an economic stimulus for the country? Maybe not.
“Big sporting events rarely deliver an economic stimulus,” Reid notes. He says visiting soccer fans will likely spend a lot on beer, hotels, food, and T-shirts, but they’ll also displace tourists who would have come otherwise.
There’s another reason the games probably won’t be a boon to the local economy. All the hoopla that surrounds a massive sporting event could make going to work a challenge, both logistically and mentally.
“Brazilians will probably work fewer days this year because of the World Cup, partly because cities may declare local public holidays in order to ease transport problems during match days and partly because a lot of Brazilians will just take time off work to enjoy the cup,” Reid said. “So I think the net effect is going to be close to zero.”
There’s also the bragging rights associated with being chosen to host an international sporting event. But when you’re on the world stage, all eyes are on you, and shortcomings get magnified. For Brazil, problems in the preparations for the World Cup have generated a lot of negative press — a narrative the government hopes will fade now that the games have begun and the cameras focus on the pitch and the after-parties.
“Brazilians are warm and friendly; people usually have a good time when they go to Brazil,” Reid says. “So Brazil may salvage something from what up till now has been a public relations near-disaster.”
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Could Brazil turn it all around by winning the World Cup on their home field? That remains to be seen. But if they lose, Reid thinks the nation will hold it together better than they did after its defeat in the finals in 1950.
“I think Brazil is a much more complex country now. And I think the national trauma this time is over the spending on the Cup. The problems have thrown a rather harsh mirror on Brazil,” he said.
So in some ways, perhaps the World Cup is helping the country come of age — and showing the world that Brazilians are not just soccer fans, but also citizens in a maturing democracy.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.