RIO DE JANEIRO -- Hosting the World Cup and the Summer Olympics two years later may have seemed like a good idea when Brazil was riding a wave of economic growth, but now it has many people scratching their heads.
Was Brazil overly confident, blindly ambitious, showing off, or just eager to finally take its place — not among those nations that have almost arrived, but among the world’s most powerful economies — when it pursued both the FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games?
Few would argue that Brazil was ambitious.
When the 2010 World Cup was held in South Africa, there were nine host cities. Despite the expense and logistical challenges in a continent-sized country, Brazil pressed for a dozen cities. That meant building or refurbishing 12 world-class arenas for the games, which begin Thursday.
“We put on a lot of pressure to have 12 host cities, so we would have 12 regional development poles,” said Deputy Sports Minister Luis Fernandes.
Call this the development World Cup — and that’s the key to understanding why Brazil set itself up for such a staggering one-two punch.
Brazilian authorities not only want the world to get to know Brazil better, but they also want to ratchet up investment in the nation’s airports, ports, roads and public transportation systems — all an Achilles heel for a nation larger than the continental United States.
Many projects have been stalled for decades.
Before Brazil won the bids for the back-to-back sporting events, it was much harder, as Fernandes put it, “to negotiate the liberation of investment funds.”
Brazil has staged big events before — most recently 2013’s World Youth Day, when as many as a million young people turned out for a six-day festival of Catholic faith presided over by Pope Francis.
But no event will play larger on the global stage for Brazil than the World Cup, for which 600,000 foreign visitors and 18,000 journalists are expected. An estimated three million Brazilian fans also will attend matches played by 32 teams in cities from the Amazon in the north to gaucho country in the south.
The challenge, said Fernandes, has been building everything from new stadiums to a Bus Rapid Transit system in Rio de Janeiro while organizing the World Cup.
Then, the Olympics
Brazil’s performance as host of the World Cup also will set the tone for 2016, when the Olympics come to Rio.
Only three other countries — Mexico, the former West Germany and the United States — have hosted World Cups and Olympic Games two years apart.
When Rio submitted its Olympic bid in 2007 and then was named host city two years later, then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva tearfully proclaimed, “All we needed was an opportunity to show what a great nation we are. Rio deserves this. Brazil deserves this. The people of Brazil deserve it.”
Back then Brazil was floating on a cloud of optimism — economic growth was averaging more than 5 percent annually; the Chinese had an apparently endless appetite for Brazilian iron ore, soybeans and other commodities; potentially massive oil deposits had been discovered offshore; and Brazil was looking forward to becoming the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2016.
“I think at the time there was the perception that Brazil really had changed for the better” — and that it had become a country where a 4 percent annual growth rate was sustainable, said Tony Volpon, who heads emerging market research for the Americas at Nomura Securities International. “What went wrong is that it’s no longer a 4 percent economy.”
The recent confluence of events in Brazil is scarcely what Lula da Silva would have hoped for. The economy is limping — growing just over 2 percent last year; extracting deep-water oil has proven more difficult than initially expected; and Brazil’s growing middle class is restive.
Despite democratic reforms, members of this burgeoning middle class don’t see democratic institutions working for them; as the economy slows, they want more and they’re not getting it — and they’re fed up with corruption, former Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jorge Castañeda said during a recent visit to Miami.
Poll: Growing unrest
A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows growing unrest among Brazilians. It found that 72 percent were dissatisfied with the way things are going compared with 55 percent a year ago. Two-thirds said the economy is in bad shape, compared to just 32 percent a year earlier.
And 61 percent said hosting the Cup is bad for Brazil because it diverts money from public services, according to the survey, which was conducted in April and released Tuesday.
Now, with many seemingly turned off by the Cup and Brazil’s streets roiled by protesters who object to billions in World Cup expenditures in a country that still has trouble delivering quality public education and basic services, questions have been raised about the wisdom of putting on a global sporting event in a developing country.
Those insinuations irk Robério Braga, secretary of culture for Amazonas, the largest state in Brazil. “The question we need to ask is, ‘Why shouldn’t Brazil have a World Cup?’ Because we’re an underdeveloped country?” he asked.
He sees a payoff for Manaus, which sits in the middle of the Amazon and competed strenuously to be a host city. “We’re not investing in just putting on the World Cup,” said Braga. If Manaus is a good host, “we’ll have many tourism possibilities,” he said.
Fernandes acknowledged that public opinion in “some sectors” of richer countries does reflect a certain prejudice about Brazil’s ability to deliver a World Cup.
“We can only respond to prejudice with achievement,” he said. “We’re confident Brazil will surprise the world with a successful World Cup event.”
Brazil hopes to benefit from the global media exposure. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa reached a global in-home audience of 3.2 billion people — then almost half the world’s population.
But it could cut both ways if the images the world sees are a stifling police presence and protesters in the streets hoisting signs that say “ não vai ter Copa” (“There will be no Cup”).
Thirty-nine percent of Brazilians said that hosting the Cup would hurt Brazil’s image around the world, while 35 percent said it would help and 23 percent said it would have no impact, according to the Pew survey.
Scenic riches, diversity
Still, potentially the Cup gives Brazil a chance to show off its scenic riches from the teeming cities of Rio and São Paulo to colonial villages, from the beaches along the Emerald Coast to the Amazon rainforest, from towering Iguaçu Falls to the Pantanal wetlands — where jaguars and 1,000 species of birds live.
Tourism is an underachiever in this vast country. In 2013, Brazil welcomed 6.2 million visitors, compared to South Africa’s 11 million. The Eiffel Tower’s 7 million visitors also topped Brazil.
Brazil is expecting an $11.1 billion boost in tourism from the 32-day event, although the overall economic impact will be small in a $2.2 trillion economy, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
Even though most fans during last year’s Confederations Cup were Brazilians, Fernandes said Brazil still got about $4.5 billion in additional tourism revenue from the event. That’s far more than the country invested in preparing six stadiums for the Confederations Cup, he said.
“For us, it’s an historic opportunity — a rare opportunity to show how diverse Brazil is,” Fernandes said.
To prepare for the matches and to handle the fans, Brazil is spending $11.6 billion — including about $3.58 billion on stadiums, said Fernandes. Those expenditures have turned off the protesters.
But Brazil’s desire to host the World Cup goes deeper than economic impact in this country that invented the artful and showy jogo bonito — the “beautiful game” as the Brazilian style of soccer is called — and where soccer balls are kicked around everywhere from the sands of Copacabana Beach to tiny villages deep in the Amazon.
Futebol and Brazilians’ skill at playing it have helped unify Brazil and consolidate a national identity in a big, rambling country that is rich in resources but has long just been on the verge.
Said Fernandes: “It gives us a sense of accomplishment,” helping Brazilians overcome a nagging inferiority complex.
A column written in 1958 by playwright Nelson Rodrigues talks of Brazil suffering from the “stray dog complex” after it lost 2-1 to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium. So certain had Brazil been of victory that the loss was nothing short of a national tragedy.
“Uruguay kicked Brazil around as if they were a bunch of stray dogs,” Rodrigues wrote.
And that notion of being the stray dog, not quite in sync with the developed world, has persisted. It manifests itself as a “chronic inferiority complex, this idea that everything works better abroad,” said Fernandes. “Every time there’s a difficult situation, a trace of this inferiority complex comes back.”
That’s why a World Cup victory by Brazil’s Seleção, the national team, would be so important for the national psyche.
“The perfect storm is they lose and [their hosting] is a mess,” said Castañeda, who now teaches at New York University.
But Volpon said that the world shouldn’t underestimate Brazilian resilience: “It’s not going to be a mess. The country will pull together.”
A word that will be much tossed around during the monthlong World Cup is legacy, which in this context means what will be left behind for the Brazilian people when the Cup is over.
Much criticism has been heaped on the soccer palaces built in Brazilian cities that don’t have a strong regional soccer tradition. But rather than white elephants, Fernandes said that many of the improvements spurred by preparations for the World Cup will be “legacy for our national and regional development.”
And that can be measured in concrete terms only in the years after the last World Cup goal is scored, he said.