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Soccer meltdown only adds to negative mood in Brazil

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The only previous time that Brazil hosted the World Cup, in 1950, it famously lost the final 2-1 to Uruguay, after allowing two goals in 13 minutes late in the second half. So deflated were Brazilians that Nelson Rodrigues, a playwright and journalist, described the occasion as a "national catastrophe … our Hiroshima."

If that is the benchmark, then the 7-1 semifinal thrashing on July 8 at the hands of Germany in Belo Horizonte’s Mineirão stadium was Brazil’s Armageddon. It was not just the scale of defeat — the worst since 1920. It was also the manner in which Germany’s fast and technically superior players cut through the home defence, as easily as a machete through cassava. To rub salt in a gaping wound, it is Argentina — Brazil’s archrivals — who will face Germany in the final on July 13.

This humiliation has left Brazilians shell-shocked. No other country in the world has a closer identification with soccer, as Rodrigues’ hyperbole highlights. That may partly be because Brazil has no real Hiroshimas to fear: apart from brief engagement on the Allied side in Italy in 1944-45, it has not fought a war since the 1860s (against Paraguay). Through good fortune and tolerance, it faces neither military threats, nor terrorism, nor ethnic or religious tensions.

But this identification with soccer is also because the sport has provided a national narrative and a social glue. In a country that for long periods has failed to live up to its potential, prowess at the game provided "a confidence in ourselves that no other institution has given Brazil to the same extent," as Roberto DaMatta, an anthropologist, wrote in the 1980s. Brazil has won five World Cups but no Brazilian has won a Nobel Prize.

In winning the right to host this year’s World Cup (and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016) Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s then president, wanted to highlight that the country now has other reasons for confidence beyond soccer. The tournament would showcase the planet’s seventh-largest economy, a vibrant democracy and remarkable social progress that has seen poverty and income inequality fall steadily in this century.

But the tournament has taken place just as Brazilians are feeling less confident about their country’s course. The economy has slowed to a crawl; inflation is at 6.5 per cent, despite a succession of interest-rate rises. The US$11 billion of publicly financed spending on stadiums helped to trigger huge protests last year over poor public services, corruption and the misplaced priorities of politicians. The last-minute rush to complete the stadiums, and the tragic collapse of a newly built flyover in Belo Horizonte this month, highlighted Brazil’s difficulties with infrastructure projects.

Contrary to some forecasts, the event itself has gone smoothly, without transport breakdowns or significant protests. Predictably, most fans have had a great time. Polls showed that Brazilians were warming to the idea of hosting the tournament. Despite being booed at the opening ceremony, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor and protégée, had felt emboldened to announce that she would attend the final.

Brazil’s shattering defeat has robbed Rousseff of any hope she might have nurtured that the World Cup would provide her with a boost in an election in October; she will be seeking a second term. But in itself it will not help the opposition either. Things are not as simple as that. Brazilians were always going to have other matters on their mind when they vote in three months’ time. The incumbent president won in 1998 when Brazil lost badly in the World Cup final, after all; and his chosen successor lost in 2002 when Brazil won.

At a deeper level, however, the humiliation at the Mineirão is likely to reinforce the country’s negative mood. And that is potentially dangerous for Rousseff. Though polls still make her the favorite, the campaign will only now start in earnest. Her approval rating hovers barely above 40 per cent, and polls consistently show between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of Brazilians wanting change. With her centre-left Workers’ Party having been in power for 12 years, can she offer it? Her appeal is in essence to past achievements — to a huge rise in employment and real wages, both of which are only just starting to move into reverse.

Similarly, the Mineirão disaster showed that Brazilian soccer is no longer a source of national confidence. It too needs changes that go far beyond building shiny new stadiums. Its officials are corrupt and its domestic league poorly run. Living on past glory, it is inward-looking and tactically outdated. Brazilians may end up concluding that they need new management and new ideas, both on and off the pitch.

 

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