Why Brazil is so much bigger than the FIFA World Cup

Last Thursday, the World Cup kicked off in Brazil, as the host country took on (and beat) Croatia in the opening match. Though Brazilians have not seen a World Cup on home soil since 1950, every four years the country is draped in yellow and green as 200 million people cheer on the national team.

But the past year has seen a changing Brazil — and the Brazilian World Cup experience is changing with it, revealing long-fermenting questions over Brazil’s future.

The coming weeks will see stadiums full of Brazilians singing every word of their national anthem. Traffic jams in São Paulo will look like checkerboards of Brazilian flags, with car hood after car hood draped in the banner. And as you walk past bars in every major host city, you will hear countless play-by-play analyses of the day’s matches.

This enthusiasm is justified. The tournament is expected to bring in more than $13 billion in revenue. Of the billions of dollars invested in the event, almost $8 billion is earmarked for infrastructure development projects to solidify the World Cup’s positive legacy.

But the country is unprecedentedly split over whether Brazil should be hosting the tournament — surprising in a country so devoted to its national team. According to the latest poll from reputable Brazilian polling agency Ibope, 51 percent of Brazilians are in favor of hosting the event and 42 percent are against.

The euphoria shared by the countless Brazilians who embrace the tournament hides a series of challenges that hamper Brazil’s sizeable potential. And chief among those challenges is the country’s dramatic and persistent struggle with inequality.

Inequality is a sticking point for the country’s emerging middle class. As that group bears the brunt of the tax burden, many among them are demanding services commensurate with what they pay in.

And as the rising middle class justifies its own relevance, this year’s is the most expensive World Cup to date, costing approximately $12.7 billion dollars — almost triple the $4.8 billion spent in Germany in 2006 and nearly quadruple the $3.6 billion spent in South Africa in 2010. In this context where access to basic services appears lacking, authorities struggle to justify the astronomical price tag.

Brazilian students rank in the bottom quarter in mathematics, reading, and the sciences according to one leading index. Bloomberg ranked Brazil last in healthcare efficiency among 48 advanced economies, and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014 ranks Brazil’s infrastructure 114 out of 148 countries.

In many ways, FIFA’s decision that Brazil would host this year’s World Cup was an opportunity for Brazil to showcase its productive and logistical capabilities — but delayed construction, stalled infrastructure projects, and higher-than-expected costs plagued the preparations. The lead-up to the tournament exposed the systemic problems that have kept investment away despite the promise of sizable rewards.

The inflexible labor market, logistical bottlenecks, and the legendary Brazilian bureaucracy have been on full display. Brazil struggled to seize the opportunity fully.

Even as Brazil faces challenges at home, the country is striving for a more central role on the global stage. Brazil has actively contributed to peacekeeping activities in Haiti, East Timor, and Lebanon. Brazilian exports grew by nearly 300 percent between 2000 and 2010 — double the global average.

But the real question is not if Brazil proves a capable host, nor is it if the Brazil’s team emerges victorious. Rather, the context of this tournament — Brazil’s inequality, the urgency of addressing it and the growing disparity between the expectations and reality of the country’s potential — is what’s at stake.

Ultimately, the protests and international attention surrounding the World Cup reflect the higher expectations that Brazilians and the international community now hold for Brazil. The country is going through pivotal transformations and, for better or worse, this transition is taking place in full public view.

Brazil has built the hard-earned foundations to set itself up as a key player on the global stage — that much cannot be denied. Just like the national team in this World Cup, Brazil is a global favorite to succeed. All that remains is to seize that opportunity.

Mack McLarty was White House chief of staff and Special Envoy for the Americas under President Bill Clinton. Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.