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In Brazil, soccer no longer ‘opiate’ of the masses

BY Larisa Epatko  June 11, 2014 at 2:58 PM EDT
Brazilian street artist Paulo Ito drew a picture of a crying child, who is served a soccer ball to appease his hunger, on the wall of a public school in Sao Paulo, as Brazil readies for the 2014 World Cup. Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images

Brazilian street artist Paulo Ito drew a picture of a crying child, who is served a soccer ball to appease his hunger, on the wall of a public school in Sao Paulo, as Brazil readies for the 2014 World Cup. Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images

Much has changed in Brazil since the last time it hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1950, including a more skeptical, informed and middle class audience.

Roberto DaMatta, a professor at Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, recently recalled the day in July 1950 when he went with his father to watch the Brazil-Yugoslavia match in the cavernous Maracana stadium — a game the Brazilians won 2-0.

“I was 15 years old and I realized we had built the greatest stadium in the world,” said DeMatta at a Wilson Center event. He said he and his father marveled at the team, the stadium and how they had gotten there by public transportation.

Now, public transportation workers are striking for higher wages, threatening to further tangle to Sao Paulo’s infamous traffic. It’s one of the areas people point to when they gauge whether or not Brazil is ready for World Cup, which starts Thursday.

In addition to the striking workers, Brazilians have staged protests over the $11 billion cost of hosting the tournament, saying the money would be better spent on hospitals, schools and airports.

Compared to 1950, the Brazilian population — equipped with computers and mobile phones — is not just more aware of the country’s problems but in general feels entitled to get better services, said DaMatta. “Football is no longer the opiate of the people.”

In 1950, Brazil was still in its early stages of industrial and urban development and had a relatively new democratic regime, said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, Latin America director of Eurasia Group. At the time, Brazilians felt optimistic about hosting the World Cup, not least of which because the tournament had been on hiatus during the 1940s due to World War II, he said.

“There was a great sense of a new moment. Brazil was emerging from a dictatorship; it was this young country hosting this game and building the stadiums. It was a sign of a country coming of age.”

There still were problems related to stadium construction in 1950, but the bar was much lower then, in terms of the infrastructure needed to host such a huge commercial event, said Castro Neves. In some ways, “Brazil in 1950 hosting the World Cup was similar to South Africa hosting it four years ago, as the first World Cup on the African continent,” he said.

But attitudes and demographics have changed. With industrialization and urbanization just getting started in 1950, there was a smaller middle class and more people living in rural areas. Now, about 85 percent of Brazil is considered urban. That shift increased infrastructure needs, traffic and air pollution, and launched a much larger middle class with its own demands, said Castro Neves.

“They’re not satisfied only by having these huge state-of-the-art stadiums, they want everything that’s supposed to surround these stadiums like subway systems, airports and good roads, not to mention hospitals and schools,” he said.

The World Cup itself also has changed. “It’s an industry now — it wasn’t like that 60 years ago — demanding more investments across the board from the hosting countries,” said Castro Neves. “It’s a profitable venture, but necessarily for the country itself.”

In Brazil, 12 cities are hosting the games, but half don’t have meaningful soccer teams, so the grand stadiums might not get much use later, Castro Neves explained. “The stadiums will become while elephants in some cities.”

Large-scale sporting events, such as the World Cup and the Olympics, are supposed to benefit the host country but they can end up losing money, he said. “More and more, that vision is becoming clear” to the general public, prompting a backlash including the demonstrations in Brazil.

Mauricio Moura, a researcher for Harvard University, said by telephone from Sao Paulo that a survey of 5,000 Brazilians recently conducted for the university showed only 51 percent are in favor of the World Cup — the lowest rating for any previous World Cup where data is available.

“For Brazilians, having soccer as the main sport, it’s very strange to have about 45 percent of people against the World Cup,” said Moura. On the other hand, when Brazilians were asked if they would support the national team, 88 percent of respondents said “yes.”

There’s a separation between what people are feeling for the team and the soccer games, and frustration toward the Brazilian government and World Cup organization itself, he said.

So the sour taste in Brazil over the World Cup and the fewer flying flags might all change once the golden shirts take the field. “This is the first time we are seeing this dissonance” in the streets, but when World Cup begins, there will be at least some temporary peace, said DaMatta.

Why isn’t the U.S. more competitive on the world men’s soccer stage? Weigh in during our live Twitter chat at 1 p.m. EDT on Thursday using hashtag #NewsHourChats. We’ll also explore Brazil’s challenges in hosting the tournament on Wednesday’s broadcast. View all of our World Cup coverage.