Latin America Report
9:00 am
Wed June 18, 2014

Why Brazilians Worship Soccer -- And Why Their Leaders Can't Hide Behind It Anymore

Yellow-and-Green Fever: Brazilian World Cup fans at Boteco in Miami.
Credit Julia Duba / WLRN

Do Brazilians still care about soccer?

I know, that seems as dumb a question as "Does the Vatican still care about Jesus?" Brazilians are arguably the most soccer-passionate people on Earth.

But check out this poll result just before the World Cup started last week in Brazil: A majority of Brazilians said they were not happy about hosting international soccer’s biggest event.

That’s because Brazil’s World Cup preparations were such an embarrassment. And because the Cup’s billion-dollar cost overruns are such a source of anger for Brazilians right now.

So does that mean their enthusiasm for what they call futebol is waning?

Hardly. Here in South Florida, you only have to check out Brazilian bars and restaurants like Boteco on Miami’s north side during Brazil’s World Cup games. It’s like carnaval in June. Only louder, especially when Brazil scores a goal. (When Brazilian star Neymar put one in the net last week in the opener against Croatia, one Brazilian fan screamed so wildly into my microphone that I thought I’d have to pull it out of his tonsils.)

“We’re still proud of being five-time world champions,” Brazil native and biologist Helena Giannini told me as she waited to get into Boteco. “No other country has that honor, and it’s a big precedent to defend. It’s a passion we’re born with, it’s a passion we die with.”

RELATED: How Brazil's Hubris Jeopardized Its World Cup

But this World Cup is nonetheless changing the way Brazilians view that national obsession – and that's bad news for Brazilian politicians.

To understand why, you first have to appreciate why soccer is religion in Brazil. For starters, Brazil and Latin America used to be European colonies. Soccer took root in the New World as one important way to prove it was equal or superior to its former Old World overlords, who invented the game.

There’s also class: Most great Brazilian players, like the legendary Pelé, are products of poverty. Soccer is one of the only things in Brazil that bridges the country’s historically huge gap between rich and poor.

Even Brazil’s language – Portuguese – may have helped make soccer its most important export.

“Even though Brazil is one of the wealthiest countries in the world culturally, not a lot of people on the planet speak Portuguese,” says Sergio Menezes, who was born in Recife, Brazil, and now lives in Miami Beach. He’s a TV announcer for international soccer games and heads the U.S. league for footvolley, a new sport that started in Brazil combining soccer and beach volleyball.

Brazilians of course want their team to win. But do they want to let their government off the hook?

Menezes points out that when the rest of the world doesn’t speak your language, you look for other ways to stand out. “Since the world’s number one sport is soccer,” he says, “and with Brazil having such a winning tradition, that’s become their number one asset.

“So Brazil playing in a World Cup in Brazil,” Menezes adds, “is the equivalent of the lunar landing.”

That’s why Brazilian players, perhaps more than in any other country, take their national team more seriously than the big-money soccer clubs they play for in Europe. That includes the guy who could be the star of this World Cup: 22-year-old Brazilian striker Neymar.

“Lots of players, you will see they play great for their club, and when they go to represent their country, they sort of shrink," says Andrew Downie, who covers Brazilian soccer for Reuters out of São Paulo. “One of the most important things about Neymar is that he’s one of these rare players that grows in a big game, especially for Brazil."

CURRENCY COLLAPSE

All of which means Brazilians will consider anything less than winning this Brazilian World Cup a failure on par with a collapse of their currency. In fact, how the team finishes could even swing Brazil’s presidential election in October.

Or, this time, maybe not.

The scandal surrounding the Cup’s cost has put President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election bid in jeopardy. In the past, the euphoria of a Brazilian Cup championship could have saved it for her. But Menezes says Brazilians today are conflicted about that: They want Brazil to win, but they don’t want to let their government off the hook.

“The problem is, if the Brazil national team wins, will that tilt the election in her favor?” notes Menezes, who says he’s not taking sides in the election. “And if it does, will the corruption continue?”

Some Brazilians, like Giannini, believe that even if Brazil wins, Rousseff could lose. “Dilma’s in trouble,” she says, “and Dilma’s gonna be in trouble” either way.

Brazilians still care about soccer as fiercely as ever. But prognoses like Giannini’s indicate that the connection between soccer performance and political fate seems to be unraveling. It’s perhaps a long overdue recognition that other things – like good government – matter as much if not more than soccer.

Right now, what matters is Brazil's disappointing 0-0 tie with Mexico yesterday. Still, the team should advance – and so will a passion only Brazilians can truly understand.

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