With just 99 days left until the start of the 2014 World Cup, the host nation Brazil has an image problem. For all the complexities it faces as a developing country, with 200 million people living in vastly differing circumstances, it finds itself reduced frequently to its most famous assets: football, carnival, beaches and women.
There will have been little surprise outside Brazil when sports brand Adidas launched two World Cup T–shirts that focused on the curves of the female form, a laddish nod to the possible benefits of travelling to the tournament this summer – one of them carried the slogan “Lookin’ to Score” next to a cartoon of a bikini–clad girl on a beach; the other read “I love Brazil” with a heart resembling the upside–down buttocks of a woman wearing a thong.
The Brazilian authorities responded indignantly, and the company withdrew the T–shirts from sale last week. Yet there are contradictions in the national image at every turn. While appearing horrified at the sexism perpetuated by Adidas – the government denounced the designs as playing to sexualised stereotypes – the same country celebrated carnival this week with the main TV network, Globo, using a naked female samba dancer as its muse.
The “Globeleza” – based on the network’s name and beleza, meaning beauty – is elected by viewers annually, her modesty protected only by some body paint and glitter. And while the four–day bacchanal was celebrated on the streets of Rio de Janeiro with the usual fervour, stereotypical images of a colourful and vibrant party overshadowed a street cleaners’ strike that left a tide of rubbish across the city.
But holding the World Cup in Brazil ought to be the perfect match, the event that unites the nation and heals the cracks. This is the country that has won the World Cup five times, that gave us the talents of Pele, Zico and Ronaldo, and where football is often described in religious terms. “Brazil is the mecca of football,” Jérôme Valcke, Fifa secretary general, said last week after a local organising committee (LOC) board meeting.
Moreover, when the decision to make Brazil the host was announced in 2007, the economy was booming, with annual growth of more than five per cent. Under the then president Lula da Silva, the Bolsa Familia welfare programme was lifting millions out of extreme poverty and the country was thriving, grouped with Russia, India and China as one of the fast–developing Bric economies.
But as the World Cup edged closer, the economy stalled, growing by just 2.3 per cent last year. Preparations for the tournament have fallen so far behind schedule that Fifa has considered moving matches away from one of the 12 host cities. Two of the World Cup stadiums are unlikely to be finished until mid–May, a month before the event starts, throwing into chaos plans for test events, and transport projects have been delayed or cancelled.
“From what I hear abroad, they are talking about our very same doubts, delays, demonstrations, security – all this is very natural,” said Ronaldo, the former striker and Brazil’s World Cup poster boy, who is a member of the LOC board. “There was uncertainty around the Winter Olympics and Sochi and we know the event was very successful. We hope the same will happen here, it’s a lot of work. Until the end of the World Cup, I’ll keep on fighting to convince people that it is a wonderful project for all of us in Brazil.”
But for all Ronaldo’s optimism, the World Cup has caused divisions within a rapidly changing and growing country. Last summer’s Confederations Cup, which acted as a dress rehearsal and should have been the starting gun for the countdown to the biggest footballing party in the world, was instead the backdrop to the biggest protest movement in a generation.
The demonstrations that flared in cities across Brazil were sparked by a 20 centavos (six pence) rise in bus fares, which coincided with massive investment in the World Cup, a slowdown in the economy and a rise in the cost of living. The proposed increase would have hit the poor hardest in a country where the minimum wage is less than £200 a month and many of the working classes face long bus commutes to cities from deprived suburbs.
“The protests against the World Cup really bother the government because they want to sell the image abroad that we have no problems,” said Paulo Ventura, a student from São Paulo. “The aim is to show those outside Brazil that while we have many problems in various areas, our illustrious government is spending an absurd amount on the World Cup.”
Among the demands from the protesters were free public transport, greater public spending on education and health care, and better security. And they soon became targeted at the World Cup: banners reading “Fifa Go Home” and “There Won’t Be a World Cup” became a familiar sight.
“People say Brazil is an emerging country, but it’s emerging from nothing,” says Luciano Cardoso, a residents’ association leader. “We’re 88th in the world for education. In my opinion, the World Cup gives no benefits at all because 70 per cent of the spending on works is public money. So why didn’t they do it before if they had so much money to invest, to give to Fifa, as a donation?”
There are concerns within Fifa that protests will start again during the World Cup, testing the £475 million security operation that will see 170,000 troops, police and security staff on the streets. Popular support for hosting the tournament has fallen from almost 80 per cent in November 2008 to around 50 per cent last month, according to figures from the research institute Datafolha – though those in favour of protests during the competition are less than a third.
“Of course we would like the World Cup. Brazil loves football. Some people don’t like football but the majority like it,” says Claudia Favaro, representative of the Popular Committee in Porto Alegre, one of the host cities, which campaigns against abuses linked to the World Cup. Popular Committees were set up in each of the 12 host cities to monitor preparations for the tournament and their impact on human rights, including discrimination against the poor.
Many of the upgrades to transport infrastructure and stadiums have been carried out to meet Fifa standards, a requirement that has annoyed many who believe it comes at the cost of other priorities such as health care and education.
“The problem is the ‘Fifa standard’,” Favaro says. “It doesn’t give anything back to the country. The organisation of a country is down to the state, to the government. But they put public money into delivering a standard that Fifa requires. Our stadiums are excellent, but they have to have everyone seated, everything formal.”
Among the grievances are the evictions required to make way for infrastructure, often affecting some of the 11 million people who live in favelas, or informal shanty–type communities. Compensation of £13,000 from the government in Porto Alegre has left many out of pocket, with an equivalent property now costing between £17,500 and £20,000.
“It’s very clear that the human rights legacy was not a real concern,” says Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing and a professor at the University of Sao Paulo. And the perceived legacy of the World Cup could prove decisive when Brazilians go to the polls in October. President Dilma Rousseff is expected to seek a second term, with her approval rating currently at 55 per cent after dropping to 30 per cent during last summer’s protests.
She has dubbed this year’s event the “Cup of Cups” in the hope of using a successful showpiece as a springboard for election success. “Brazilians are ready to show that they know how to receive tourists and contribute to make this the Cup of Cups,” she said, in a message marking the 100 days milestone.
Meanwhile in Rio, “Imagina na Copa” – which translates as “imagine this during the World Cup” – has become the catchphrase of taxi drivers, directed at all manner of shortcomings, including road works and traffic jams. They will take some persuading that a football tournament can change a nation’s fortunes.
Originally published by The Daily Telegraph