In the hours after our loss to Germany in the World Cup, people here in Brazil were walking around in a daze. “Sete a um… Sete a um [7 to 1]”, we mumbled in disbelief, as if waiting, hoping really, to wake up from a nightmare. Conversations started half-heartedly and petered out; we bemoaned the team, the coach, the Germans, the luck. On TV the goals followed one another in an endless loop, as if to show that the day would never end. We have not really processed what happened emotionally, but this much we know: The game will be a national sour memory for years to come.
Yet even as I write this, pausing occasionally to convince myself we really did lose to Germany by such a lopsided score, I realize how silly it is to be in mourning because a group of overpaid athletes who happen to have been born in this country lost a game to a more competent bunch from elsewhere. During this World Cup, in Israel and Palestine four teenagers were brutally murdered for the worst of reasons and a war just (re)-started. Thousands have marched in Hong Kong in a desperate bid to preserve the small measure of freedom they still have. Much of Iraq and Syria have become a terrorist playground, opposed only by a cynical coalition of mullahs, chekists, and actual and wannabe tyrants. And in the very city that this fateful game was played, a traffic overpass under construction, originally planned to be finished before the World Cup and being rushed to completion before the elections, collapsed and crushed two people to death.
But again, this is a post about football, and ergo, not about rational reasoning. The relationship between Brazilians and football, epitomized by the seleção in their golden jerseys, defies simple explanations. It is deep, passionate, and more universal than pretty much anything else in the country. Which is why, barely a year ago, people suddenly sat up and paid attention when a chant emerged from the massive countrywide protests that seemingly came out of nowhere. “Não vai ter copa!”, marchers shouted. There won´t be a World Cup.
This realization that we were not in fact in a glide path to the First World had been slowly dawning on Brazilians since the cooling of a China-induced commodities boom showed the limitations of Brazil’s current development model, and that the people in charge didn’t have much of a clue as to how move forward from that. Arguably the moment this vague unease turned into conscious outrage was the moment we hit the streets. The size and persistence of the protests caught everyone by surprise, including the protestors themselves. The initial spark was a small rise in bus fare prices in Sao Paulo. Attendance grew from outrage at the brutal police response to the initial protests. And then suddenly every major city in the country erupted into roving street parties of chanting protestors, unled and unruly, brought together by an inchoate feeling that things were not (contrary to prior expectations) going so well, but with very little agreement on how to go about changing that. The then-upcoming World Cup was a natural focus of this peculiar jubilant anger. On the one hand, the lavish spending on stadiums stood in contrast to the many more basic needs that remain unfulfilled. On the other, the shambolic and often arbitrary way the whole process was conducted, the delays and unmet promises, and the unmistakable whiff of corruption, served as stark reminders that in spite of all its recent progress, Brazil remained a very unjust and mostly badly run country. Like the fare hike, the World Cup was a symbol of much else that was wrong.
A lot of ink has been spilled trying to explain what happened then, mostly unsuccessfully. Like goalkeepers defending a penalty kick, many political forces in Brazil guessed wrong about what the protests meant, jumped the wrong way and ended up clutching a whole lot of empty air. No established political group successfully positioned itself as the protesters’ representative. As time passed, bickering among the movement’s self-appointed leaders and explainers alienated many. Disorganized, leaderless and feeling unrepresented, people increasingly decided to stay at home, and the rallies became dominated by loosely organized black blockers looking for trouble, and small Popular-Front-of-Judea/Judean-People’s-Front-style Marxist parties smelling revolution. In the end, marching and sloganeering failed to coalesce into a significant political movement, and the rump movement that was left became a side note. “Não vai ter copa!”, they kept shouting, in smaller and smaller numbers in the face of an ever more violent police. But teve copa. The World Cup did happen.
Indeed, as World Cups go, ours turned out to be a very good one. The football played was the best in decades.* The event’s logistics, contrary to expectation, functioned well, and the atmosphere on the streets for both locals and foreigners was for the most part a genuine delight. The considerable financial and social costs of the event have been left, for the moment, out of sight and out of mind. But for a while it didn’t seem it was going to be like that.
After the protests the national mood soured. The political debate became more polarized than it has ever been since democratization, often downright ugly. Many Brazilians became, or affected to become, jaded to the Cup, which is unprecedented. In previous Cups, walking around in the nearly empty streets during a Brazil game was an eerie experience, like the aftermath of a neutron bomb attack decorated in green and yellow; the calm punctuated by delirious screaming and fireworks whenever we scored. Those forced by profession or circumstance to stay outdoors would congregate around any available TV screens. In Rio’s beaches, knots of police officers, street sweepers, homeless people and assorted urbanites would form in front of coconut water kiosks, watching, cheering and moaning in unison. Moments like these may border on national self-parody, but the all-too-rare sense of unity was very real. Talking football with random passersby needed no context, preface or introduction. In a country known for various forms of exclusion, the implicit and mutual fellowship of all and sundry, even if just for a few weeks, became a celebrated part of our national identity. But in this, as it often does, politics intruded.
When Brazil won the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, an unprecedented third victory out of the previous four showings, the country was being run by a nasty military dictatorship, but the economy was expanding rapidly. The generals exploited the victory euphoria shamelessly. The country was finally taking off, they claimed, thanks to their firm guidance and in spite of various bellyaching subversives. But the growth spurt was aborted by the oil crisis in 1973, and the dictatorship ignominiously faded away amidst rising inflation and deteriorating prospects, until democracy was reestablished in 1985. At least partially as a result, politicizing the Cup became a minor taboo. The various World Cups since then had little discernible effect, good or bad, on the fortunes of our rulers, in spite of the fact that they have coincided with presidential elections since 1994.
During this period, national politics largely revolved around two parties: Dilma’s and Lula’s PT, and the PSDB of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Ideologically, and in spite of some strenuous protestations to the contrary, they are respectively on the center-left and on the center-right, and closer than either would care to admit. But the peculiar logic of Brazilian politics dictates that both must pretend the other is the epitome of radicalism, either incendiary Bolivarian lunatics or poor-hating neoliberal ogres, and instead of working together each acquired instead a coterie of much grubbier and nastier electoral allies. Both started as relatively clean on the broad front that brought about the end of the military rule, but have become more corrupt with the exercise of power.
Brazil won the right to host the cup in 2007. By then, the country was run by Lula, a former labor union leader turned pragmatic leftist, and it was doing very well. The economy was booming, inflation was under control and successful social policies had lifted many out of poverty. Again Brazil was being hailed as the country of the future.
In retrospect the government’s involvement in organizing the Cup meant politicization was probably inevitable. The wisdom of holding it in a country with such a creaky infrastructure was questioned, of course, and the preparations were harshly criticized. More important, however, it was the Cup’s symbolic value that became contested. It was intended to showcase a Brazil that had finally gotten its game together on its way to the First World, and to be an event that would unify Brazilians like the seleção always did. However the dimming of economic prospects, the divisiveness resulting from the fragmentation of the protest movement, and the disillusion with the failure of government at all levels to seriously engage with society’s demands made the cup one of the most polarizing events in recent memory. The campaign for the upcoming September presidential election is shaping up to be the most bitter since redemocratization. That Cup is being wielded as a rhetoric club by all sides, and debate, on- and off-line, has largely degenerated into the trading of inane internet memes and bickering flame wars among partisans. It seems that neither the incumbent (and Lula’s chosen successor) Dilma Roussef nor her challengers have much of substance to say.
The mood just preceding the Cup was peculiar. It didn’t feel like a World Cup, as many people remarked. There was relatively little enthusiasm on display, no feverish anticipation, no sense of reverence for the Important Events that were about to take place. Slowly, however, the mood did change. As millions of supporters from different countries arrived in our cities, by plane, mobile home, hitchhiking or bicycle, chanting and partying, oblivious to the political implications of the games, Brazilians of all political stripes decided they could use a break from politics too. In the end, when the games started, we were all glued to out TVs, as we always knew we would be. Because in the end, watching Brazil play is not about liking or disliking the government, about corruption in FIFA or obnoxious TV presenters. It is about knowing how profoundly sub-par our team was, and yet hoping beyond hope that we would win; or seeing one’s ironic detachment fly out of the window and one’s fingernails getting whittled to stubs as Brazil and Chile contested a penalty shootout. It is about treating four German goals in nearly as many minutes as one would a death in the family, and then joyfully and endlessly commiserating with one’s friends over one’s favorite beverage.
Football has been a lot of things to Brazilians over the years. A source of comfort in otherwise difficult circumstances, a source of national pride in being the best in the world at something, an instrument of alienation and an endless fountain of mawkish sentimentality. Ultimately, however, it has become part of our identity; a bit of the cultural currency that makes us a people. I hope that someday we celebrate our scientists and social reformers and entrepreneurs with the same pride we celebrate our best players, and that we can define our national self-worth in ways that depend less on the outcome of a sporting event. But this won’t happen by pretending to be someone else. Last year’s protests have shown that Brazilians are not happy about their current situation, but also realize that they can’t expect some savior to sweep into power and make everything all right. There is a growing realization that most of the things we dislike about our politicians reflect entrenched attitudes that pervade the entire society, and that progress means not only changing a political class, but also changing attitudes. Magical thinking won’t save our country any more than it saved the seleção from its German debacle.
* For an unbiased observer [i.e., not me], what happened was great football, even if we were the ones on the receiving end of it for a change. Germany played beautifully, like we used to.