Latin America Report
10:57 pm
Tue June 10, 2014

How Brazil's Hubris Jeopardized Its World Cup

A Brazilian World Cup soccer stadium under construction in March.
Credit Gabriel Smith / Flickr

The line between confident and conceited was pretty thin in Brazil in October of 2007.

The South American giant was in the midst of a boom that would make it the world’s sixth largest economy. Massive new oil reserves were being discovered off its coast. It considered itself a global player that deserved a permanent seat on the ultra-exclusive U.N. Security Council.

And it had just been awarded the 2014 soccer World Cup.

“God,” then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared, “is Brazilian.”

But the gods have an unkind way of deflating that sort of hubris. And they couldn’t have picked an unkinder time to deal Brazil some humility.

Namely, the eve of the World Cup, which starts tomorrow afternoon when the host team kicks off against Croatia in the Arena de São Paulo.

RELATED: A Look Back At The Protests That Have Bedeviled Brazil and Dilma Rousseff

An event meant to showcase Brazil’s arrival as a developed nation has so far served as a reminder of the flaws that thwart its aspirations. Dysfunctional bureaucracy, brazen corruption, neglected infrastructure and not a little arrogant complacency – our country is already paradise, in case you haven’t seen our beaches, so what else do we need to prove to you? – have conspired to make Brazil’s Cup preparations a source of ridicule.

I’m usually a Brazil fan, not just of its elegant futebol but of the smart, capitalist-socialist tack that’s made the country an emerging 21st-Century powerhouse.

But consider astonishingly dumb data like this:

When FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, tapped Brazil for the 2014 Cup, officials in Brasília said they could renovate the nation’s aging stadiums for less than a billion dollars. The actual price tag: about $4 billion, an overrun that has helped make this World Cup the most expensive ever at just under $12 billion.

“The stadiums are still not ready,” NPR’s São Paulo-based South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro told me. When she visited São Paulo’s Arena last week, half the temporary seating hadn’t passed safety inspections.

So much was left at the last minute. So much went over budget. So much was not delivered. – Lourdes Garcia-Navarro

“There’s also the infrastructure works, the airports, the roads,” says Garcia Navarro. “So much was left at the last minute. So much went over budget. So much was not delivered.”

Brazilians themselves warned us about this potentially ugly June last June, when millions took to the streets in sometimes violent anti-government protests. They were fed up with watching Cup costs balloon out of all proportion while basic services like transportation, health and education remain inexcusably lame.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, did respond to the anger, but by then it was too late to stanch the delays and overruns. As a result, new polls show most Brazilians – arguably the world’s most soccer-passionate people – are remarkably unenthusiastic about hosting the Cup and believe it will bring the country more losses than benefits.

“People are searching their souls here,” says Garcia-Navarro. “They’re embarrassed and ashamed.”

And many are primed for more angry demonstrations that might disrupt the month-long Cup. The specter of militant protest groups like the so-called Black Bloc have simply added to already sharp concerns about crime in tournament cities like Rio de Janeiro. And did we mention the recent transit strikes that have paralyzed much of the country and which may or may not be settled by tomorrow’s kickoff?

BRICKS AND ASPHALT

Brazil can still pull off a successful Cup. It can still make a push this week to get all the remaining bricks and asphalt laid, cell phone and hotel capacity ramped up and airports and metros running smoothly.

And once the games get underway – especially if Brazil and national stars like Neymar dazzle on the pitch – the long lines inside terminals and dropped calls inside stadiums might not seem such a big deal. Brazil is still favored to win the tournament; if it does, it may well erase much of the malaise Brazilians are wallowing in now.

And it might just save Rousseff’s job.

Rousseff was once considered a shoo-in for re-election. But as the October vote approaches, she faces polls that show almost three-fourths of Brazilians think the country is headed in the wrong direction – especially now that its once robust economic growth is wheezing, a downturn due in large part to its overreliance on commodity exports.

It’s gotten so bad that Rousseff, an economist who has long considered engaging the media somewhat beneath her, has in recent weeks granted interviews inside the Planalto presidential palace.

And that, says a new report by the Atlantic Council, reflects one silver lining of Brazil’s Cup preparations debacle. The event’s most important legacy “won’t be shiny new stadiums,” says the Washington, D.C., think tank. It will be “a massive strengthening of the country’s democracy,” and in turn its prospects for real development.

Let’s hope that ball, to paraphrase an old soccer saying, does roll Brazil’s way in the end.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.

The Latin America Report is made possible by Espirito Santo Bank