Back in 2007, when Brazil was elected unchallenged as host nation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it all seemed so promising: Lula da Silva had just secured his second term as president, new oil discoveries had been made, and the economy was booming. Despite the huge logistical and infrastructural challenges it entailed, few questioned whether Brazil would be able to pull it off. Just under two years later, the country received yet another vote of confidence, with Rio de Janeiro confirmed as the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics. O país do futebol (or the country of football) e do Carnaval (and Carnival) was on the right track.
In 2010, Brazil’s economy grew at its fastest pace in 24 years, with a 7.5 percent surge. But fast forward to June 2013, and what you see is the largest series of protests in a generation, with more than one million people taking to the streets of several Brazilian cities during the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for this summer’s event. What was triggered by bus and metro fare hikes quickly escalated into widespread riots and discontent over a number of issues, including political corruption, poor public services and a rise in inflation.
In a nutshell, rapid economic growth brought along a “new middle class” that demands more than consumer goods. It wants to ensure its high income tax money goes into decent healthcare, security, education and housing. As The Economist put it at the time, “the marches are a sign that they are waking up to the fact that they pay taxes and deserve decent public services, not just shiny stadiums.”
According to the AFP, Brazil is spending more than $11 billion (eight billion euros) to host the World Cup, which many Brazilians would rather see spent on public service improvements. The fact that the run-up to the world’s largest sporting event has been marked by several construction malfunctions, accidents and delays is only adding fuel to the fire. Last November, part of the Itaqueirão stadium, where the opening match will take place, fell over and killed two workers (the death toll is now at six). This week, parts from the roof of the Mineirão stadium fell onto the pitch during a storm, just hours before a regional championship match.
But is it all so bad? Of course not. Let’s remember that, over the last decade, more than 30 million people in Brazil have gone from poverty to the consuming classes. And while growth has slowed significantly, Brazil’s economy grew 0.7% in the last quarter of last year, which according to Finance Minister Guido Mantega, “was a surprise even for the government.”
But president Dilma Rousseff, whose approval rating has recently fallen for the first time in seven months, can’t just put a band-aid on the nation’s underlying issues by stepping up security and hoping for the best, for that might not be enough to manage tensions in the long-term. That is, however, what seems to be happening in the country.
“I think at the end of the day Brazil’s image in the world will be determined by what people see in the World Cup,” Brazil’s deputy Sports Minister Luis said Fernandes at a press conference in the southern coastal city of Florinopolis. So we’ll have to wait and see if this will be a peaceful World Cup, and, as FIFA President Sepp Blatter puts it, pray to “God, Allah, whoever” to ensure everything is ready on time.