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Losers on the field, but Brazilians don't want World Cup glory days to end

Losers on the field, but Brazilians don't want World Cup glory days to end

Posted by Juan Gavasa on July 13, 2014

As June rolled into July, and the World Cup unfolded with charm and thrills, young Brazilians started a campaign – joking, but only kind of – that they called Copa Permanente.

Let’s make it always the World Cup, they said, because everything is fabulous. This is the best place on earth to be. Somehow, let’s keep it from ending.

In spite of all the dire predictions, the hand-wringing and the grumbling in the years and weeks leading up to the Cup – when it began, it was magical. Visitors, whether they went to see games in giant, seething Sao Paulo or in tiny cities in the interior that had never before hosted more than three foreigners at once – they all raved about how beautiful Brazil is, how welcoming its people. The football was fantastic, the logistics were easy, the sense of endless fun was heady.

And Brazilians basked in the reflection of everyone’s admiration, said Marvio dos Anjos, a poet, musician and football analyst from Sao Paulo. “There is a feeling that we decided to make Brazil work, and it worked,” he reflected. “It’s a mirror – if the foreigners are happy in Brazil, maybe living here is worth it. Maybe they’re right.”

Then came Black Tuesday (you know: 7-1), and yes, some of the shine diminished. Brazilians seemed almost visibly to deflate. Even before that game was over, pundits were predicting riots and unrest, or at least a return to the anti-Cup spirit that had seemed widespread before the event began.

Yet it didn’t happen. There was a new sense of grim endurance – this party has gone on too long and we’d really like to tidy up now, thanks.

But Brazilians of every stripe seem to sense how very good for their country this event has been. Brazil, the world’s sixth-largest economy, the heavyweight of South America, the pole in a left-leaning bloc of emerging countries, feels perpetually undervalued, as if the rest of the world never takes note of its heft or its abilities. That, it seems, changed, these past weeks. And so while football glory eluded them, Brazilians take solace in a public image that feels dramatically enhanced.

Brazil’s Cup was not, of course, without its cost. As many as 150,000 people were displaced from their homes for Cup-related projects, according to community organizations. Many of those people, to be sure, would soon have had to move, Cup or no Cup, given the precarious nature of their unserviced slum housing, and many are far happier in the new homes they were given. But the urban redevelopment approach adopted for the Cup left many feeling that the voices of the poor were entirely dismissed.

Roughly a third of planned infrastructure upgrades did not get finished. Some others were completed too hastily, as became clear in Belo Horizonte when a new overpass collapsed and killed two people.

Civil liberties were sharply undermined by the government’s response to the possibility of protests: The handful of demonstrators who took to the streets as the tournament began were pepper-sprayed, beaten and detained. Seventeen activists were arrested on Saturday by police in Rio, in anticipation of any sort of demonstration, and two minors detained.

And the price tag was enormous: approximately $12-billion (U.S.), although the final tally won’t be in for months. A significant chunk of that spending went on FIFA-standard stadiums in tiny cities, where no one can fathom when or why those venues might next be used.

Nevertheless, the Brazilian government has been trumpeting the economic benefits of the Cup. The federal Economic Research Institute says there will be an inflow of $13.5-billion and one million new jobs. Private economists are less optimistic. Neil Shearing, an emerging markets specialist with the analysis firm Capital Economics, pointed out that the inflow of tourist dollars is countered by a parallel slowing of other business activity during the Cup, and that the larger structural problems that have caused this economy to slow dramatically in the past year remain.

Harder to quantify, but perhaps more important in the end, is the boost to the country’s reputation. And that, said Alessandro Jacoby, a branding expert in Porto Alegre, is huge.

“We pulled off something that we didn’t think we could do – and not many other people thought we could either,” he said. Of course, he added, it helps that expectations were low, and thus easily exceeded. But Brazil had unparalleled scrutiny under social media over the past five weeks, and the vast majority of it was positive.

The change in perception will endure, he predicted. “Even the performance of our team can’t destroy this,” he added with the weary laugh that many Brazilians use when they talk about the national squad.

All of this should allay some of the hand-wringing about the 2016 Olympics, which will be held in Rio and about which critics have already been making dire predictions. Brazil has just demonstrated that, however messy the last minutes of preparation may look, it can credibly pull off a large international event. And make it one that even Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s secretary-general, who was one of the sharpest critics beforehand of Brazil, admitted was the “best ever.”

Even the horrible loss to Germany in the semi-final may yet prove to have a silver lining. A serious conversation, long overdue, began about the sorry state of professional football in Brazil. “We have not been playing good soccer for 20 years,” sports analyst Milly Lacombe said after the infamous game against Germany. “People said, ‘We play ugly but it’s okay because we win.’ Well, now we lose.”

The humiliating loss of third place to the Netherlands on Saturday only heightened the sense of outrage. The sport’s administration is corrupt and incompetent, Ms. Lacombe said, and its directors have enriched themselves for years at the expense of investing in players, training or facilities. They could resist pressure for reform as long as the country’s reputation as the cradle of football endured, but this staggeringly high-profile defeat has unquestionably destroyed the image. “Football in Brazil has to change from the root. Maybe with something like this, it will,” she said.

The scrutiny on Brazil – internal and from outside – also initiated some new conversations about race, inequality and access to public spaces and services. It is unclear whether they will endure, as the ropes of festive green-and-yellow flags are taken down.

Antonio Prata, a columnist with the national newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, championed the cause of the Copa Permanente in a tongue-in-cheek article in which he noted that apparently, if there are gringos (as all foreigners are known here) in Brazil, important equity issues get bumped up the agenda. Keep the gringos, he wrote, “and thus, there will always be pressure for better schools and better hospitals and more subway lines.”

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