The real legacy of the World Cup in Brazil

Why popular misconceptions about Brazil were not realized in the recent World Cup, what its implications are for the country's upcoming presidential elections, and how "Brazil will be just fine."

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff holds the World Cup trophy at the start of the tournament.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff holds the World Cup trophy at the start of the tournament.

Tom Jobim, the most international of Brazilian composers and writer of "Girl from Ipanema" and "Wave," among many other hits, was also a creator of nice catchphrases. One of those says: "Brazil is not for beginners."

Far from being pretentious, he wanted to say it is very difficult to understand Brazil and Brazilians with American sight, English logic, or German objectivity.

Brazil is the only country in Latin America that speaks Portuguese and not Spanish, and its more than 200 million inhabitants are some of the most optimistic people on the planet about their future. This stems from factors that go far beyond the traditionally gentle profile of Brazilians associated with stereotypes such as soccer, samba and beaches.

In fact, the experience of Brazilian society over the last 20 years, which started with defeating high inflation in the 80s and early 90s (with rates over 30% and 40% per month), plays a key role in this optimism.

Job opportunities rose thanks to a new economic dynamic resulting from inflation control, which attracted international investment, and the government’s decision to privatize a significant portion of state-owned enterprises, which opened up more participation by private business.

And government policy focused on social issues enabled the advancement of lower income classes in consumer markets, improving quality of life for tens of millions of people.

The seventh-largest economy in the world, right after France and the UK, Brazil is the fifth-most-connected country on the Internet, with more than 102 million users who are among the most active on social media.

One year ago, social networks were instrumental in mobilizing people to protest against high spending on the World Cup in a country that still has many contrasts and low investment in education and health, despite its economic and social advances.

As soon as Germany had defeated Brazil 7-1, one question was immediately in the air: would the street protests return? But it did not happen, as if a cycle was over.

The thousands of protesters on the streets a year ago dwindled to a few hundred by the eve of the tournament in June. Little by little, the main objective of the movement - "There will be no World Cup" - was lost.

As it became clear the tournament would take place, the war cry was losing sense, just as "Occupy Wall Street" couldn’t keep camping in the heart of New York and street protests and conflicts in London a few months before the Olympic Games in 2012 waned.

As Matthew Futterman from The Wall Street Journal said in his "World Cup: Brazil is going to be just fine" piece the day after Germany v Brazil: "Guess what happened in Brazil on Wednesday? The sun came up. People went to work. They drove taxis, opened grocery stores, clicked on their computers to handle legal and financial matters. Doctors healed the sick… Life went on.

"Guess what didn't happen? Cities didn't burn. Mass riots didn't erupt. As far as we can tell, no soccer fans threw themselves off buildings."

In other words, regardless of the painful defeat by Germany, and despite Brazil’s truly national passion for soccer, life went on as usual.

And the tournament kept on leaving positive perceptions, despite stadiums not being finished until the last minute and an infrastructure that, although not optimal, did not compromise the movement of 700 thousand foreign tourists and 3 million Brazilians through airports and avenues in the 12 cities where the World Cup took place. The festive interaction in the different venues between Brazilians and tourists from many countries was another highlight.

The Financial Times acknowledged more than once that, in contrast to what was expected, things eventually worked in the World Cup. It also positively stressed the human aspect: "It is confusing to visit a country where almost everyone is nice."

After the World Cup, Brazil approaches the end of July already immersed in the second great event of the year: the race for the Presidency.

There are almost 10 candidates, of which three have real chances of winning: President Dilma Rousseff, who is running for reelection (she was booed by Brazilian fans in both the opening and final matches of the World Cup, in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro), and former governors Aécio Neves and Eduardo Campos.

The two challengers insist Brazilians want a new political movement. And polls indicate the still considerable approval rate of the current president has continuously fallen as the population's longing for change increases.

The World Cup and Brazilian elections always take place in the same year. Therefore, a Brazilian habit is debating if the national team's results in the tournament in June-July will influence votes in October.

The last time Brazil won the World Cup, in 2002, the government party PSDB was beaten in the elections by the socialist opposition party PT. PT reelected president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2006, after Brazil finished in 5th place in the World Cup in Germany. The same PT elected current president Dilma Rousseff in 2010, a few months after Brazil finished 6th in the World Cup in South Africa.

History, therefore, does not prove soccer decisively influences the choice of president in Brazil.

However, there is a new factor in 2014, even more influential than the World Cup protests: the debate about the cost-benefits and legacy of the tournament, which is even more relevant after the disappointing performance of the Brazil team.

It is possible the current government loses points if the perception remains that, despite the good organization of the tournament and the satisfaction of thousands of tourists, the costs of bringing the World Cup to Brazil were too high and the recently inaugurated stadiums will rapidly become idle.

It is too early to know the outcome of this debate. However, it is commonly known that, despite the new stadiums, some new subway lines, renovation and expansion of several airports, and expansion of the hotel network, the legacy of the World Cup will be limited.

It will certainly fall far behind the legacy planned for London after its 2012 Olympic Games. Since London was chosen as host, any urban intervention destined to expand the supporting infrastructure of the games was based on the assumption it would guarantee a legacy for the city until at least 2040.

The Brazilian elections, by the way, must be analyzed from the perspective of a still young Brazilian democracy, where freedom of speech was only fully restored in the early 80s and direct elections for president of the republic only reinstated in 1989, after more than two decades of military dictatorship.

This context means political parties were mostly created less than 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. These parties don’t have a legacy of members and affiliates to guarantee permanent voting support and representation. It is the opposite of the US, where Democrats and Republicans were consolidated over a century ago and have large contingents of loyal followers.

In Brazil, a party that does well in one election may have bad results in the next, due to the lack of a solid and traditional support base. This makes forecasts more difficult than in other Western democracies.

And in a country with such a young population, every four years a great number of people are granted the right to vote - and their political preferences are not always easy to map (voting in Brazil is mandatory for people over 18 years-old.)

In order to better understand the country and its inhabitants, it is important to remember there is not one Brazil, but several "Brazils."

Just as in the US, where it’s impossible to define a single typical American knowing the mindset of a New Yorker is different from a Dallas Texan, or the lifestyle of someone in Los Angeles is different to that of Salt Lake City.

Diversity and flexibility, by the way, are traits of Brazil and Brazilians. That’s why a great part of the population could cheer for Germany in the World Cup Final against Argentina just five days after the national team was beaten 7-1 by the very same team.

As American journalist Larry Rother, Rio correspondent for The New York Times from 1999 to 2007 and author of two books on the country, says: "There are some things that can only happen in Brazil."

Ciro Dias Reis is CEO of Brazilian PR agency Imagem Corporativa; VP of PROI Worldwide; director of the Brazilian Association of PR companies, Abracom; and board member of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation, ICCO

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