As we watch the thrills and tears of the closing rounds of the World Cup passion in Brazil, we are not only distracted from our daily challenges here, in Brazil or across the world, we are also inspired by some of the super achievements of our favorite underdog teams.
I last visited Brazil a little over 10 years ago as a part of the inaugural leadership fellowship of the Miami Foundation. Our Miami Fellows class selected Brazil because of the similarities we thought that it shared with the United States, and those that urban centers such as São Paulo, Rio and Salvador shared with the city of Miami, in particular.
I recently returned to Brazil with family and friends for a bucket-list trip to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Salvador, Bahia.
Brazil’s Seleção da Futebol Confederação last won the Cup in 2002, and this month as it hosts 32 teams, the country aims to reclaim its glory both on and off the field in a presidential election year. Half of that score was settled on Tuesday with Brazil’s incredible and emotionally wrenching 7-1 loss to Germany in Belo Horizonte.
Both the United States and Brazil have undergone evident changes over the past 10 years. At the time of my fellowship, we were about to enter President George W. Bush’s second term; locally, Manny Diaz was Miami’s mayor; and we were well into Miami-Dade’s experiment with its first strong mayor, Alex Penelas. Concurrently, Brazil was seeing the last term of President Fernando Cardoso and entering the era of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. These political transitions did not bear any apparent similarities, but reflected periods of global national-security challenges, urban transformations in cities like Miami and increased social investments in Brazil.
For Brazil, national investment in the construction or renovation of stadiums and the building of infrastructure for other facilities sparked protests in which Brazilians lamented the lack of greater support for healthcare, housing, education and social services. Since my last visit, the gap between rich and poor has not narrowed, and the investments in social services from the Lula administration have been unsustainable during the current sluggish economic period.
Though Brazilians are filled with national pride and love for futebol, some I encountered quietly whispered small doses of frustration and mixed emotions about hosting the Cup. Notwithstanding, my brief sampling is no scientific conclusion of the exact sentiments of the more than 190 million citizens in that proud, sprawling nation.
Back home in Miami, still recovering from our recession and still felling reverberations from the questionable spoils of a Marlins Stadium deal, Miami continues it’s love-hate-love affair with sports-franchise owners — or those striving to be — looking to strike deals with municipal governments for their facilities and teams. The debate rages here and in Brazil as to the use of public funds for the renovation, leasing or construction of sporting facilities and whether the economic benefits truly accrue and trickle back to the general fund for more public services or flow to the pockets of sports barons.
Despite the now-dashed euphoria of potentially winning the world’s most coveted trophy and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics to be held in Rio, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is learning that the same friendly voting public can and will switch jerseys when the same dollars do not afford them the basic needs of the day. After the echoes of the rabid visiting fans leave the stadium aisles and urban streets, Brazil will face harsh realities in maintaining its status as one of the world’s largest economies. In fact, this World Cup experience may offer Brazil an opportunity to reconcile some of the economic imbalances and imperfections prior to the Summer Olympics.
After approving deals to retain the Miami Heat and to incentivize a privately renovated Sun Life Stadium to attract more Super Bowls for this bustling visitor economy, greater Miami still struggles with a frustrating public-transportation system, a decaying sewer network and one of the poorest per capita populations in the nation. We are keenly reminded that the glisten from any possible championship trophies does not always erase the harsh realities across our communities.
As I walked next to the towering pristine Arena Fonte Nova Stadium in Salvador, Bahia, I looked across the street at the surrounding hillside favelas. There was not much middle ground. Most of these residents were black or people of color. I could only pray that many of those residents had an opportunity to capitalize on business and job opportunities spurred by dollars spent at the stadium as opposed to the FIFA officials seen being whisked in and out with military escorts. I closed my eyes and imagined the same circumstances from in and around the AmericanAirlines Arena or Sun Life Stadium. Will those same kids in Miami Gardens, Overtown, or any Brazilian favela have a real chance to hold a “trophy” up high? Who will give them their field of dreams?
Though it is a geographic stretch to draw direct parallels between urban centers of the United States and Brazil, I pray that, despite Brazil’s stunning setback on the field, the Christ Redeemer statue that watches from the Corcovado mountaintop in Rio blows the whistle at the right moment to give that little kid in the favela in Rio or here in Miami Gardens a fair chance to reap the riches of the sports that we all love.