A World Cup of woe

  • Demonstrators burn a Brazilian flag during a protest against the 2014 World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Thursday, June, 12, 2014. The sign in the upper right reads in Portuguese "all politicians are thieves." People marched demanding better public services and protesting the money spent on the World Cup soccer tournament. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

When the World Cup ends a month from now — I hope with a sixth star shining on the golden jerseys of the home team — the problems that plagued Brazil's hosting effort will remain. With or without a trophy, Brazil will face major challenges in its transformation from one of the world's most unequal societies into a thriving democracy.

Brazilians have been in a sour mood since June 2013, when massive street demonstrations erupted against lavish World Cup spending in a country lacking good basic education, healthcare and public transportation. The protesters' underlying message was simple: their love of soccer should not be taken for granted by the government and the country's self-serving politicians.

For the country's growing middle class, the news of delays and deficiencies in the construction and update of stadiums, mass transit, airport terminals and communications networks are manifestations of problems that ordinary citizens, and Brazil's stalled economy, have long confronted. GDP barely grew in the first quarter of this year and was expected to head into negative territory in the second quarter, despite the stimulus generated by World Cup goods and services.

With national elections scheduled for October, Brazilian pollsters Mauro Paulino and Alessandro Janoni, of Datafolha, said President Dilma Rousseff (who is running for re-election) and her opponents could have problems if they try to exploit the World Cup for political gain. "The government and the opposition have nothing to celebrate," they wrote, given that a "record number of voters say they don't have a preferred presidential candidate or a political party."

Rousseff is ahead in the presidential race, but her poll numbers are in decline. Her main rival, federal Sen. Aecio Neves, a successful former state governor, has barely improved his numbers. Paulino and Janoni described the politically charged atmosphere of the last few weeks as a "social Maracanazo," an ominous reference to Brazil's traumatic defeat by Uruguay in the final of the 1950 World Cup in Rio's Maracana stadium.

This is not necessarily bad. Brazilian Roberto DaMatta, a Harvard-trained anthropologist and professor emeritus of Notre Dame University, who was 13 in 1950, sees the country's current bad mood as a blessing in disguise. "The World Cup has been useful to convey profound political messages that touch on themes that are fundamental for the country. In this sense, soccer is no longer the Brazilian people's opium, as imagined by many, but rather an awakening," he said.

Indeed, Brazilians are hard to fool these days. According to a Pew Research Center survey released June 3, discontent has intensified since last year's protests. Almost three-fourths (72 percent) of a representative sample of Brazilians interviewed in April said they were dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country, up from 55 percent just weeks before the demonstrations of June 2013.

Four years ago, another Pew survey had found Brazilians among the most upbeat people on the planet. "The level of frustration expressed today by Brazilians about the direction of their country, their economy and their leaders has no parallels," said Juliana Menasce Horowitz, who directed the survey.

Almost two-thirds of Brazilians (61 percent) said that hosting the World Cup was bad for Brazil because it takes money away from public services. Only 34 percent believed it was a good thing because it will create jobs. The Pew survey also showed Brazilians divided on the international benefit of the tournament. Nearly 40 percent believe the World Cup will hurt Brazil's image, while 35 percent say it will help. For 23 percent, it will have no impact.

Rousseff dismissed the criticism of the World Cup last week as the opinion of "a small minority." She will be vindicated if the matches go well and the four-week tournament proceeds without more major protests and disruptions. But that doesn't seem likely.

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