Thomas J. Vicino


June 11, 2014

Why Are Brazilians So Angry? The Failed Promises of the World Cup

Thomas J. Vicino and Justin Bensan
Rio de Janeiro

The 1950 FIFA World Cup, hosted in Brazil, is legendary. In the unforgettable final championship match, the Brazilian national team battled Uruguay and ultimately lost in one of the biggest upsets in football’s history. It was a stunning defeat that would become known as the Maracanaço. The term, derived from the name of the iconic Maracanã Stadium, roughly embodies the idea of a disaster on the field and is now a part of the everyday lexicon in contemporary Brazilian Portuguese to refer to any sort of disaster.

Six decades later, Brazil finds itself hosting the World Cup again. Brazil gets another shot. While the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro and the other 11 official stadia scattered throughout the country have been renovated, the rest of Brazil’s infrastructure may have the 2014 FIFA World Cup ending in another Maracanaço for the 21st century. Will Brazil miss its shot again?

This week, the world’s attention will turn to Brazil as this nation of 200 million hosts this mega-event. Some 600,000 international travelers will arrive into Brazil’s airports and an additional three million passengers will be traveling domestically between host cities. This is an opportunity for Brazilians to come together and present a proud nation to the world. But what usually unifies a country and its people has actually been tearing it apart.  

Brazil’s World Cup will not be the shining achievement that it could have been. Preparations for the games have been marred by delayed infrastructure projects, violence, and protests. Why are Brazilians, known more for their happiness and love of football, so upset? Why have millions of Brazilians descended into the streets to demonstrate against the World Cup?

The promise of hosting the World Cup is enormous. When Brazil was awarded the hosting rights, the country was well on its way to superpower status. Then, something unprecedented happened: the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2016 Olympic Games to Rio de Janeiro. Successfully preparing to host the two premier mega-events within two years of each other would be a colossal challenge for any nation much less an emerging nation with underdeveloped infrastructure.

This challenge has quickly proven to be almost insurmountable. Brazil is eager to show the world that it has matured into the twenty-first century, having persevered through a tumultuous past. Since the end of the Second World War, Brazil moved from a democracy to a dictatorship and back to a democracy. Its economy has overcome decades of hyperinflation to emerge as the world’s fifth largest. Its society, one of the most unequal, has recently witnessed an astounding growth of the middle class.  

But Brazil has a long way to go. Despite growing at a staggering pace, Brazil is still a developing nation. Preparations for the World Cup have been chronically plagued, which has become apparent in the dozen cities that will host games. Everyone is asking, “Will Brazil be ready?” This is a familiar question that the world seems to ask of every host country before such mega-events.

The scale of Brazil’s World Cup brings great challenges but also ambitious promises to upgrade infrastructure across the vast country. Mega-events are always touted as opportunities for hosting nations to prioritize much-needed infrastructure updates. The Brazilian government has already spent $11 billion on World Cup preparations including $4 billion on the stadia alone. This World Cup will cost more than the previous three tournaments combined. However, for the amount of money that Brazil has poured into the games, the investment is lacking.

There is little doubt that the games will go on, but it has and continues to be a bumpy ride. Preparations have been bungled at best and downright at chaotic at worst. Many projects, like new subway systems, have been abandoned. And too many others have been underdeveloped and rushed. FIFA President Sepp Blatter observed, “Brazil eventually realized that it had started too late in its construction of infrastructure improvements. This is the most procrastination that we have ever experienced in World Cup preparation and they had more than seven years to prepare.”

The World Cup provided an opportunity to build a new Brazil--not just for international spectators but also for Brazilians. Instead, football fans will be greeted by sub-par infrastructure and frustrated Brazilians. What is source of the discontent in Brazil? Consider some of the following facts on the state of Brazil today.

Fact: Brazil is a highly urbanized society, and its cities are sprawling. With 50 million residents, the São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro megalopolis is among the largest in the world. Uncontrolled, rapid urbanization creates many challenges for residents, housing, infrastructure, and security. In fact, they threaten the games if left unaddressed by policymakers.

Fact: Urbanization often results in inequality. Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography, the agency responsible for maintaining the country’s census, approximately 12 million residents live in informal, slum settlements. These places are commonly known as favelas, and nearly one in four residents of Rio de Janeiro call them home.

Fact: Public infrastructure in Brazil is broken. Roads need paving. Sanitation systems need upgrading. Mass transit needs substantial investment. And airports are over-capacity with passengers and aircraft squished into every corner of Brazil’s aging facilities. Meanwhile, schools are overcrowded and hospitals suffer from a lack of beds and adequate services.

Fact: Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world. With American and European governments issuing warnings to their citizens traveling to Brazil, violence threatens to paralyze the games. Since the 1990s, about 35,000 people have been killed by firearms annually--that’s nearly four times the rate of the United States. Daily robberies on public transit and kidnappings instill fear in all Brazilians, rich and poor alike.

Fact: Brazil’s political and economic system have long suffered from corruption, and the dealings surrounding the World Cup have been no exception. Ricardo Teixeira, the long-time president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, was forced to resign in 2012 amid accusations that he had embezzled $40 million in marketing rights for the World Cup (with his father in-law, João Havenlange, a former president of FIFA). Although this example stands out as one of the most egregious, it is only one of many instances of rampant corruption.

On a daily basis, these sobering facts shape the public discourse about the preparations for the World Cup. The most riveting stories draw our attention to the conditions of favelas, urban violence, and the protest movements. In a sense, they expose the roots of corruption and structural inequality in Brazil. These stories are central to understanding the debate about the World Cup. More of these stories must be told.

The youth and disenfranchised of Brazil have a long tradition of protesting. From the days of protesting the military dictatorship to economic reforms, they have long taken to the streets to fight for social equality, economic security, and democracy. For example, the “March on Rio de Janeiro” in 1968 drew some 100,000 Cariocas to the streets to protest abuses by the military police. Similarly, during the 1980s, the Diretas Já movement (Direct Elections Now) sent millions of Brazilians to the streets for years, which ultimately ushered in a transition to re-democratize Brazil in 1985.

It’s now been a half-century since a ruthless authoritarian military regime came to power by ousting President João Goulart in a coup d’état. While Brazil’s democratization was accompanied by unprecedented economic growth, the country’s public infrastructure and welfare state did not keep up. Last year, a proposal to increase the bus fare by ten cents sparked a revolution in Brazil. Over one million Brazilians poured into the city streets to demonstrate their widespread anger about the abysmal state of social services and political graft. Many said that “Brazil woke up” last year. The Brazilian Spring resonated with the masses. Indeed, public opinion polls showed that three-quarters of Brazilians supported the protests.

What does this all mean for Brazil? Mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics typically foster nationalistic pride and civic culture. But this has not been the case in Brazil. The protests and the anger against the World Cup have taken on a life of their own. They have successfully united Brazilians from all walks of life (from slum dwellers to the middle class) in opposition to Brazil’s huge public investment in a mega-event.

The government is scared. President Dilma Rousseff is terrified. From federal ministers and deputies to mayors and city council members, politicians in all levels of government fear that the protests, at best, will overshadow the World Cup festivities or, at worst, derail the games entirely. It’s no secret that the government did not anticipate such discord over the hosting of the World Cup. The policy response has been to say nothing and display military strength. The goal is to keep people off of the airwaves and out of the streets.

So, will Brazil be better off? Perhaps. That’s the multibillion-dollar question. Many observers of Brazil have noted that it is a country of the future, always looking forward. Brazilian optimism is contagious. One only needs to glance at the nation’s flag to be reminded of this. The words “Order and Progress” showcase the national motto at the flag’s center. But the burden of hosting two mega-events has tested Brazil’s devotion to order and progress and has deeply divided the people of Brazil. Will Brazil face another Maracanaço? On the field, the Brazilians have a winning chance. Off the field, the promise of a new Brazil is still unfulfilled. Lula, a popular former president, said upon winning the bid to host the Olympics, “Today is the day that Brazil gained its international citizenship.” Now Brazil needs to live up to it. In 2016, Brazil gets a second chance.

About the Authors:

Thomas J. Vicino
is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and a Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar at Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Brazil. He is the author of four books, including most recently Global Migration. Justin Bensan has held numerous positions in state and local government and has conducted extensive research on mega-events and urban infrastructure.

Contact the Authors:

Follow Thomas J. Vicino on Twitter: @ThomasVicino
Follow Justin Bensan on Twitter: @BJustin

E-mail: Thomas J. Vicino
E-mail: Justin Bensan

Tags: #FIFA #WorldCup #Maracana #Copa #NaoVaiTerCopa #VaiTerCopa #Brazil #Brasil


© 2014 Thomas Joseph Vicino and Justin Bensan