When Brazil won the right to host the World Cup in 2007 it seemed to confirm that this giant nation was finally ready to fulfil its ambitions and assume a leading global role.
Its diplomats were increasingly prominent and in Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva it had a globe-trotting president who raised his country’s profile to unprecedented heights.
Such was Brazil’s new confidence Lula da Silva even attempted to resolve the international stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme, an unprecedented initiative by a traditionally cautious diplomatic player.
Underlying this new assertiveness was a purring economy which was sucking in record levels of foreign investment.
This ambition was perhaps best symbolised by bidding for the World Cup and Olympics at the same time. But now, less than seven years later, the euphoria has dissipated. Lula da Silva’s successor Dilma Rousseff maintains a far lower international profile and, under her presidency, the foreign ministry has been sidelined. Instead she has focused on a sputtering domestic economy as consumer confidence falls and private investment becomes increasingly scarce.
“The Lula administration articulated a new idea of Brazil having a global projection, and hosting the World Cup fitted into the idea that the time had finally come for Brazil to assume a global role,” said Oliver Stuenkel, assistant professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “Under Dilma this has been temporarily discarded and there is a consensus that Lula was too ambitious and somewhat overreached, almost selling Brazil too well to the world.”
The collision between grand ambition and Brazilian reality is well illustrated by the problems in preparing for this month’s World Cup. After securing the rights to hold the tournament, Brazil decided to have 12 host cities, more than in any previous edition of the event.
The government promised its population that the tournament would bring a legacy of transformative improvements in infrastructure, especially to the country’s overcrowded urban transport systems.
At one stage authorities pledged to spend €4 billion on desperately needed metro lines, trams and bus corridors. That has now shrunk to €2.6 billion. And with just over a week to the tournament’s start, only €1 billion worth of projects have actually been delivered, with none at all in four of the 12 host cities – São Paulo, Manaus, Salvador and Porto Alegre.
It is a worrying legacy in a country where the crisis in public transport sparked mass protests last year during the Confederations cup. As the problems fulfilling promises become apparent, polls show support for the World Cup has dropped from 79 per cent in 2008 to 48 per cent now.
"Without doubt the great frustration Brazilians have with the tournament is due to the urban mobility question. We hoped this would be the greatest legacy because almost every large Brazilian city has huge problems in this area," said Gil Castello Branco, head of Contas Abertas, a public-spending watchdog that has tracked the failure of authorities to fulfil World Cup commitments.
Such problems expose the failure of the Lula da Silva and Dilma administrations to tackle many of the underlying structural problems that have now trapped Brazil’s recent progress in a maze of bottlenecks.
A Byzantine bureaucracy, sclerotic justice system and widespread corruption undermine execution of desperately needed public works, said Castello Branco. “We had the expectation that our cities would be transformed. Some of these projects will be delivered later but it is all happening in the usual slow, mediocre Brazilian manner. It is like we are building medieval cathedrals.”
Cheap credit binge
Part of the failure to fulfil the country’s ambitions can be traced back to the negative inheritance from the country’s military dictatorship. It fuelled rapid economic growth in the 1970s by going on a cheap credit binge, racking up debts the country could not pay by the 1980s causing an economic crash which took two decades to fully emerge from.
"During the 1980s and 1990s, few public works were executed because of the economic crisis. And when your planners have little to do, you lose your ability to plan," says Rodrigo Prada, who monitors World Cup preparations for Sinaenco, Brazil's association of architects and engineers.
“Now we are paying the price. There will be a positive legacy from the World Cup, but it will be less than it could have been with better planning.”
With the football now imminent, Brazil has been reduced to muddling through. Because of the lack of improvements in urban mobility, cities are declaring holidays on match days to try and free up clogged streets and trains and hoarding is being erected to hide unfinished building work.
“No-one seems to think this is going to be a World Cup in which Brazil surprises the world. It is way too late for it to organise a world-class event,” said Prof Stuenkel.
Whether authorities hold an inquest into the planning failures after the tournament remains to be seen. But without one, Brazil’s structural problems will continue to undermine its wider ambitions.
BRAZIL'S PEOPLE Sérgio Rodriguez
Brazilian author Sérgio Rodriguez has published several novels including his most recent O Drible (The Feint). Yet to be translated into English it is a much-acclaimed examination of Brazil's recent history through the lens of football.
What made you decide to write a novel about football?
Football in Brazil is more than a game. It is one of the things that define our national identity and character. It is one of the few things that unify the country. I wanted the book to be a reflection of this, to reflect the profound cultural dimension of football here.
Much of O Drible looks back to the period when Brazil won its first three world titles. Why is this era so important in the country’s history?
It was our golden age which created the sensation that Brazil could be a successful country. Football was one of several things with bossa nova and the euphoria of the construction of Brasília that all speak of a period when there was great optimism about the future of the country.
But the third title in Mexico in 1970 was won during the dictatorship?
In truth it is just a coincidence. That team was the maturation of the sides of ‘58 and ‘62. It is sad that the most glorious moment in Brazilian football took place in the year when the dictatorship killed and tortured the most. But the team of 1974 was more in the style of the dictatorship. All its ideology was far more present it the ‘74 team which lost in Germany playing a mediocre, defensive football.
What are your expectations for the Cup here after all the criticisms of the preparations?
There is a feeling Brazil has lost even if we win and a victory is not going to change this. Of course it will be easier to swallow if the team wins. But I’m certain that if this Cup was anywhere else Brazilians would be much more excited about this squad than they are.
The team is interesting. It is a good team with a real chance of winning.