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Soccer-mad Brazil sours on World Cup

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A man discourages people from attending the World Cup soccer tournament during a march demanding better public services in Rio de Janeiro. Last year, millions of people took to the streets across Brazil complaining of higher bus fares, poor public services and corruption while the country spends billions on the World Cup.

SILVIA IZQUIERDO / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

A man discourages people from attending the World Cup soccer tournament during a march demanding better public services in Rio de Janeiro. Last year, millions of people took to the streets across Brazil complaining of higher bus fares, poor public services and corruption while the country spends billions on the World Cup.

You know there’s a problem when Dilma Rousseff, the president of perhaps the most soccer-crazed nation on Earth, has to resort to a public-relations campaign to sell Brazil on the benefits of hosting the FIFA World Cup this year.

It’s a telling response to a stunning turn of events: Since June, when thousands of middle-class Brazilians hit the streets to protest shoddy public services and overspending on soccer stadiums, the World Cup has gone from a source of pride to a political liability. The video No, I Am Not Going to the World Cup by Carla Dauden became the rallying cry of many angry Brazilians. So many Brazilians made such a stink that FIFA President Sepp Blatter in July wondered "whether we made the wrong decision awarding the hosting rights" to Brazil.

The real problem for Rousseff is that she is seeking re-election in October. A poor showing as a World Cup host just months before the vote could deal a blow to her bid. No wonder Rousseff is so eager to persuade Brazilians to smile for the cameras.

Daily newspaper O Estado do S. Paulo quoted an unnamed Rousseff administration official last week as saying that the campaign to generate support for the World Cup is designed to prevent people from "getting carried away by the madness." The madness in question refers to a campaign titled Nao Vai Ter Copa ("There Isn’t Going to Be a Cup") that has grown popular on social media. Last month, Rousseff’s Worker’s Party created the hashtag #VaiTerCopa ("There’s Going to Be a Cup") on Twitter in response.

That Rousseff is in full campaign mode is undeniable. She attended the World Economic Forum at Davos last month for the first time in an effort to win over investors amid Brazil’s recent lacklustre economic performance. The political timing of the PR campaign is so obvious that Rudolf Kunz, a columnist for O Estado do S. Paulo, in a column on Saturday said  Rousseff’s decision to name a new communications minister was an attempt "to face with more vigour negative news and more carefully guard the party’s interests."

Global soccer star Pele also came to the World Cup’s defence last month when he begged protesters "not to spoil the party."

"I hope people have good sense: Allow the World Cup to go on," he argued. "Then we can make up for what politicians are stealing or diverting. That is a separate problem. Soccer only brings foreign exchange and benefits for Brazil."

Brazil has bigger problems than protesters outside the stadiums where the games will be played. As of early January, six out of 12 World Cup stadiums still weren’t ready. Recent protests suggest that security measures may not be enough for the event. And Brazil’s airlines and airports lack the capacity to handle demand from soccer fans flying back and forth between cities.

The reality is Rousseff’s administration is far less popular than the global soccer tournament. A survey by Brazil’s Datafolha published in October showed that 63 per cent of Brazilians support the World Cup. Those are better numbers than Rousseff’s approval rating of about 41 per cent as of November, according to a separate Datafolha survey.

Last week, Jose Americo Dias, a spokesman for the Worker’s Party, spun Brazilians’ dissatisfaction with Rousseff. Brazilians are fed up with politicians in general, he said. "If the Cup has any political significance this year, it won’t be against Dilma but in favour," he added. "That is because we have the conviction that the competition will be an absolute success."

Whether Brazilians’ anger and frustration with Rousseff’s administration is justified is a matter to be settled at the polls. But the president’s troubles aside, Brazil’s long-term brand is the far more important issue. Brazilians concerned about that image, and their own economic fortunes, should hope all goes well with the World Cup.

Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for Bloomberg View’s World View blog.

—Bloomberg News

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