Dental-floss bikinis, carnival, samba, and soccer – that’s the façade Brazil typically presents to the world. After living in the country for more than three years, I can safely say that perception isn’t too far off, particularly when it comes to Brazilians’ love of “the beautiful game”. Like most, I saw the Confederations Cup as an opportunity for Brazil to prove its detractors wrong and show the world that it was ready to step into the limelight to host the upcoming major sporting events. What could be more important for the “spiritual home of soccer”? And while Brazilians aren’t renowned for being overly meticulous in their approach to planning, we were all fairly certain they’d manage to pull it off by gametime.
The first sign that some Brazilians had a different take on things came the week prior to the opening match, when protests began in São Paulo in response to a 9-cent rise in bus fares. Isolated instances of heavy-handed police response blew that spark into an all-out blaze. Latent discontent erupted into protest in cities across the country. Suddenly, the focus turned to Brazil’s chronic economic and social issues, and to perceived government largesse in its spending for the upcoming major sporting events. Posters with the phrase “Cup for Who?” – helpfully translated into both Portuguese and English for international audiences – became a regular presence and rallying cry for the protestors, who had come to see both the Confederations and World Cups as symbolic of corruption and waste.
In keeping with custom, I assumed the protests would fizzle out with the start of the tournament. After all, this is a country that grinds to a halt each time the Seleção Brasileira plays, with holidays often extending into a very long weekend if the match happened to fall on a Thursday…or a Tuesday. But as I watched the crowd boo FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff during their remarks at the inaugural match in Brasilia, it seemed that this was as a clear signal of more serious collective intent to bring about real change.
Then came the transition point. With Brazil’s victory over Spain in the final match, the mood in the country changed overnight. For a moment, it felt like Brazil’s triumph on the pitch might help generate the sort of optimism and national goodwill required to address some of the more serious grievances against the poor state of public services such as schools and hospitals. But that window came and went.
Next was the Pope’s visit to Rio in late July – another opportunity to showcase the country was ready for primetime and had learned the right lessons from past mistakes.
From the 11th hour change of venue from a muddy swamp, to the transportation breakdowns and dubious crowd control practices, the management of the Pope’s visit raised more questions about Brazil’s ability to effectively manage big events. Yet, in a surprising display of candor not often seen from Brazilians, the authorities acknowledged the poor performance during the Pope’s visit and insisted that things would be different next time.
With less than a year before kickoff in 2014, there is little time for Brazil to ensure that the World Cup takes place without incident and build back the confidence lost. But, while it’s unlikely that the demands of the masses can be met in full before then, I have no doubt the Brazilian government will strive to move mountains to make good on its promise to make the World Cup “a Cup for all.”