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Why soccer-loving Brazilians are voicing discontent over World Cup

June 11, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
Hopes for Brazil’s burgeoning economy were high when the World Cup was awarded to the country in 2007. But now many Brazilians accuse the World Cup celebrations of draining $15 billion of Brazil’s resources into the international economy. Jeffrey Brown gets insight from sports writer Dave Zirin and Paulo Sotero of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Our two guests have been studying and writing about these issues. Dave Zirin is the sports editor of “The Nation,” host of the show “Edge of Sports” on SiriusXM, and author of a new book, “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.” And Paulo Sotero is the director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center.

And, Paulo Sotero, let me start with you, just to back up a little bit for context. When Brazil got this World Cup, was awarded it, it was a different time, right? It was seen — it was a power on the rise.

PAULO SOTERO, Brazil Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Yes, there was a very popular president. The economy was growing at about 6 percent a year.

Income was being distributed and there was a sense of possibility that this once very unequal society continues to do, to be so, but was transforming and continues to transform itself into a thriving democracy.

But, yes, times have changed. The economy now may be at this moment in a recession. Lula is gone. There’s a less popular president. And the challenges created by the past success are much more complicated now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and we will pick up on that, but Dave Zirin, the other part of the context here of course is the role of football, soccer in Brazil, this tradition, its identity really with the country.

DAVE ZIRIN, Author, “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil”: Absolutely.

And Paulo is absolutely correct. When the World Cup was awarded to Brazil, the growth rates were on the rise. I remember “The Economist” had a cover of the Christ the Redeemer statue actually taking off like  a rocket ship. And this was supposed to be Brazil, and the idea that Brazil was going to be a world power, it was actually going to challenge the United States for economic supremacy of the Western Hemisphere.

And the World Cup was seen as part of Brazil’s coming-out party coupled with the 2016 Olympics in Rio. And yet what’s happening right now is, because the economy has slowed down, you have a situation where FIFA still has all of the same demands that it had when the World Cup was awarded.

So Brazil can’t go to FIFA and say, well, our economy has slowed, we don’t have as much fat in the system, we can’t build the stadiums at the pace that you like. FIFA just says, no, you signed your name on the dotted line. We want to see our stadiums. And I think that’s what’s rubbing people the wrong way in Brazil.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paulo Sotero, what do you see as the main reasons for discontent right now?

PAULO SOTERO: It is precisely that there is a narrative in the government that Brazil is transforming itself, the greater Brazil is a better Brazil.

But people look at public transportation and they say, no, it’s not that much better. There has been very good positive news in terms of salaries, but this phase is already passing. And they see then, as Dave says, those stadiums, state-of-the-art things, being built.

And Brazilians are very discerning. And this is the positive thing coming out of the World Cup. There is an awakening in Brazil that, yes, we love soccer, but we have to have a sense of priorities in public expenditures here. And this is — this rancor, this opposition, this discontent I think reflects that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you see that as a positive change in terms of…

DAVE ZIRIN: I have to say, I see it as very positive as well because what’s happening in Brazil with regard to its relationship with both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee is not unique to Brazil.

I have covered every World Cup and Olympics in the last decade. And at each one, you see a lot of similar issues, debt, displacement, the militarization of public space. And yet this is really the first time that you have seen people in advance of one of these mega-events voicing these kinds of concerns. And I think that is going to have a positive effect internationally going forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paulo Sotero, just bring us back to even today, on the edge of the games. Is Brazil ready? Is the infrastructure, everything ready?

PAULO SOTERO: As ready as we can be.

The stadiums will be ready.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PAULO SOTERO: Some of the transportation, the transit systems that were promised, some of them will be ready. Some others will not be ready. The surrounding part of the stadiums will probably be below par.

But the stadiums are for 60 people — 60,000 people, so those people will get to those stadiums. What you will see on television will be probably be nice. We know how to throw a party in Brazil, as you know, so there will be a positive image.

But there is behind the scenes this attitude of a society that, right now, 60 percent to 65 percent of Brazilians sees this as a negative, saying that this may hurt Brazil’s image abroad that, by the way, is positive, and this may take — make more cost than benefits to Brazil precisely of what David is talking about. FIFA is taking away money from this tournament tax-free.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Dave, you’re about to head down there, I know. So, there’s still the threats of strikes that may affect some of the transportation.

Is there a larger political context, I mean, possible consequences out of this?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely.

There are elections this October, and every political formation in Brazil from the right to the left is attempting to use the discontent with the World Cup to capitalize for these elections, frankly, as they should, because the discontent is there. But President Dilma Rousseff is wrong, in my view, when she says that the resistance to the World Cup, the demonstrations are being politically orchestrated by enemies of the government.

The discontent is very organic. It comes from the people themselves. And that’s why the slogans about we want FIFA-quality hospitals, we want FIFA-quality schools, I mean, these come from the heart of people who love soccer. They love, as Paulo said, to put on a party, but they feel like they are being left out, they’re behind the velvet rope, and they can’t get in the party, and so it is breeding more alienation than it a sense of community and understanding.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Paulo Sotero, to the extent that this still is a football-mad country, right, how much is riding on how well the team actually does?

PAULO SOTERO: I think obviously we still love soccer. We will always love soccer. We hope that we will be champions for the first time at home. Remember, in 1950, we lost in Maracana.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which still is part of the national psyche, right?

PAULO SOTERO: Oh, yes. I was born that year. I’m still traumatized.

(LAUGHTER)

PAULO SOTERO: But the fact is that politicians in Brazil will have a hard time in try to use this.

This is our collective joy, especially if we win. Soccer in Brazil is an emotional equalizer in a very unequal society. So, abusing this, trying to make political capital out of this is a very risky business. And I think that message is also being conveyed by the streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will all be watching.

Paulo Sotero, Dave Zirin, thank you both very much.

DAVE ZIRIN: Thank you.

PAULO SOTERO: Pleasure.