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 reelection) 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. Aécio 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%) 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% 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%) said that hosting the World Cup was bad for Brazil because it takes money away from public services. Only 34% 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% believe the World Cup will hurt Brazil's image, while 35% say it will help. For 23%, 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.
A strike by transit workers paralyzed Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city and home to the inaugural game, just days before the opening ceremony. A week before, a bus drivers strike caused chaos. Protests are expected in most of the 12 cities hosting games, and the police and army have been mobilized to keep order. On top of that, new allegations of corruption involving a former president of the Brazilian soccer body have surfaced.
Still, Rousseff expects a resounding success — "the World Cup of the World Cups," as she likes to say. In her view, delays and incomplete projects are inevitable. "Nobody does a subway in two years. Well, maybe China," she said. In Brazil, she added, delays are "the cost of our democracy."
But Brazilians know these problems also reflect poor planning and a general lack of capacity, not to mention the conflicted interests of politicians who traditionally have been as powerful, sleazy and unaccountable as the FIFA bosses.
In June 2009, Rousseff, then the chief of staff to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, announced plans for the building of a high-speed train connection between Rio and Sao Paulo. She predicted that the "bullet train" would be up and running before the opening of the World Cup. The bidding process has been postponed three times. Even if the project moves ahead, it will not be ready for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where preparations are also way behind schedule, which will soon replace the World Cup as a source of national frustration and pressure for change.