When Brazil kicks off against Croatia on Thursday in the first game of the 2014 World Cup, Brazilians will celebrate the return of soccer's premier tournament for the first time since 1950 to the country that most of the world sees as the true home of soccer. But it will likely be a bittersweet celebration, marred by anger as much as by the inevitable partying. That's because the run-up to the World Cup has, in many respects, been an $11 billion showcase for the deficiencies of a nation that can seem so confident and yet still finding its feet as a major economic and political power.
Many of the stadiums built or renovated for the tournament are only just ready after embarrassing delays, airport buildings will remain unfinished, and some infrastructure projects have not even started. Brazilians are furious about the public money being spent when many Brazilians remain living in poverty and when many basic government services are crying out for investment. A poll published on June 2 revealed that only a slender majority of Brazilians remain in favor of the World Cup - 51% - compared with 42% who are against it.
“For the first time in my life there is no euphoria in the air at the prospect of a World Cup,” says Milton Hatoum, aged 61, who is one of Brazil’s best known novelists.
Brazilians are also depressed by the incompetence, corruption and greed of those in charge. About two million people took part in protests against the World Cup last year, and more demonstrations are planned once the games are underway.
The poll numbers suggest that the Brazilian government and Brazil’s soccer authorities have made a mess of an event that they hoped would give the country a huge boost. It is particularly embarrassing since the sport remains its most important symbol of national identity. “São Paulo feels quiet. Only a few streets are painted with murals. I’m not seeing a party atmosphere,” says Hatoum of his home city, which is hosting the opening game on Thursday.
But some observers of the role soccer plays in Brazil believe that the lack of enthusiasm, and even outright hostility to the World Cup this year will give way to Brazil's outsized passion for soccer as soon as the tournament begins. “There’s no way that the World Cup will fail to take off,” wrote Tostão, a veteran of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side, in his column in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper last week. “There is an avalanche of adverts and news stories, thousands of people want to make money from it, there is a huge nationalistic sentiment, the feeling that we need to party in the streets has surged in the last few days and – most importantly – the national team is playing well and its star forward player [Neymar] is magisterial.”
Some Brazilians believe that for all the anger at the way the World Cup there are signs that fans will be swept up by the pure joy of the games. Last year at the Confederations Cup – which marked the start of the anti-World Cup protests – the crowd sang the Brazilian national anthem so loudly and determinedly that they broke with protocol and kept on singing after the recorded music had stopped. The anger at the authorities was channeled into a rousing and patriotic wall of sound.
And then there's the Neymar factor. For the first time since the golden era of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaká ended almost a decade ago, Brazil once again has a contender for the best player in the world. Neymar is loved not only because he plays well, but also because he plays in a very Brazilian way. His game is based around improvisation, teasing dribbles and sublime ball skills – what Brazilians call “futebol-arte”, or artistic soccer. Neymar’s charisma on the pitch makes Brazilians proud not just of him, but of themselves.
“Neymar is not quite at level of [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but he has a bigger repertory of beautiful plays, with more special tricks. He plays like a child at an informal kickabout game, always up for having fun and dribbling past whoever gets in his way,” wrote Tostão.
So long as Neymar is on form, Brazilian fans believe their team can win the World Cup for the sixth time. If they do, the tournament will be remembered as an $11 billion showcase for Brazil’s sporting supremacy rather than as the public relations disaster it has been so far.
A win may alleviate public anger at the mismanagement of the event, but this is likely only to be temporary since the preparations for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics are already beset with similar problems.“Of course Brazilians will support their team, and if they are champions there will be huge celebrations. But the joy at the football does not exclude the anger. What’s different about this World Cup is that for the first time Brazilians have realized that there are some things that are more important than football,” says Hatoum.
Brazil may not win, of course. Failure to secure the trophy would be a huge disappointment, but it would not be a disaster on the scale of what happened the last time Brazil hosted the World Cup. In 1950 Brazil lost the final game against Uruguay, a result that is widely considered the greatest tragedy in contemporary Brazilian history. The trauma reinforced a sense of failure and insecurity that scarred the national psyche for the next decades – even once it had won the tournament in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
But contemporary Brazil is a very different place from the Brazil of 1950. The country is now not only known for soccer. It is the world’s seventh biggest economy, an agricultural superpower, and it has huge untapped resources of oil and gas. Brazilian sportsmen have won tennis grand slams, motor racing championships and track-and-field world records.
Winning the World Cup would be cause for the world's biggest street party. But unlike in 1950, a loss would not leave such a huge scar. Even as they prepare to host the world's greatest soccer tournament, Brazilians know that there is a lot more to their country than the beautiful game.
Bellos is the author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life