17 Jun 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Popular image of hemispheric giant masks other darker and more pressing realities, while run-up to World Cup has been a series of disasters, writes Tony Leon
BRAZIL’s decidedly bumpy start in Thursday’s opening ceremony and match of the Soccer World Cup contained many metaphors for the sovereign host, all of which seemed to revive the old joke that "Brazil is the country of the future and always will be".
Over the past decade, this super-sized state, more than 8-million square kilometres and with a population just shy of 200-million people, appeared to have decisively cast off its image and reality of never having achieved its national or international potential. On the back of surging growth rates, sensible economic policies, which added a populist touch to pro-growth strategies, the country emerged from the historic shadows to arrive as an acclaimed international superstar: although it never overcame its huge inequalities, it certainly reduced them as millions were lifted from dire poverty onto the lower rungs of the middle classes.
Its agricultural and resource exports surged and it became the "B" of "Brics’ — with Russia, India, China and South Africa — the premier club of the developing world, in which it also became a diplomatic leader. By 2012, it had overtaken the UK as the sixth-largest economy in the world. The award by world soccer governing body Fifa of hosting rights for this year’s World Cup, followed by the International Olympic Committee decision to hold the Olympic Games there in 2016, appeared to set the seal on its national reinvention.
If not exactly lit by the illusions of samba music and sunshine-drenched beaches and tanga-clad bathers, the popular image of this hemispheric giant masks other darker and more pressing realities — corrosive corruption, heavy-handed and bloated governance and a huge economic dependency on consumption. The run-up to the World Cup has been a series of disasters for Brazil.
In fact, on the day of the opening match, police had to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse angry demonstrators in downtown Sao Paulo, who were venting their spleen at the very idea of huge public spending on the soccer fiesta (which, at about $11bn, is double the cost of SA’s hosting of the event). Even if Brazil’s love affair with the "beautiful game" is legendary, it’s clear that many, indeed a hefty majority of Brazilians, according to a recent Pew Research Centre poll, would rather the government spent more at home on repairing its chronically underperforming infrastructure and corroded public services than pay the costs for soccer’s quadrennial extravaganza.
Thus, when in the 11th minute of Brazil’s opening match against Croatia in the giant Arena Corinthians, Sao Paulo’s barely completed new stadium, home player Marcelo Vieira turned the ball into his own net, he achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the first Brazilian in history to score a World Cup own goal. But his country appeared to have scored many of them in events leading up to the tournament. Perhaps that is why the crowd apparently chanted crude insults throughout the match, aimed in equal measure at Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Fifa. This "verbal aggression", in the decorous language of the BBC, was hardly what the president had in mind for an election year. But although each of the Brics nations has undergone fairly serious economic contractions in the past few years, only India’s prime minister was decisively rejected at the polls earlier this year. President Jacob Zuma cruised to re-election; Russia’s Vladimir Putin invaded a neighbouring country to shore up his domestic standing; and China’s leadership doesn’t have to bother with elections at all.
So perhaps despite the signs of waning support, Rousseff could yet be safe in October’s election.
But the glum mood in Brazil is indicative of its severely slowing economy, which grew only 0.2% in the first quarter of this year, a far cry from the heady days of 2010, when the country’s long economic boom culminated in 7.5% growth.
It was in 2010, of course, that South Africa organised a near faultless and universally admired World Cup. And we perhaps surprised ourselves and the world with our hosting (rather than on-field) performance.
But in the subsequent four years, we have netted the ball in our own goal far more times than Vieira managed last Thursday. In the international league of contracting economies, we significantly exceeded Brazil’s poor performance, when our economy contracted by 0.6% in the first quarter, its worst performance since 2009. Incoherent economy strategies, anarchy on the platinum belt and rising public debt were cited by the two rating agencies, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s for the credit-ratings downgrades they visited on us in past days.
Croatia had good reason to blame the Japanese referee for a dubious penalty awarded against it in favour of match-winning Brazil last week. We could do the same, as the Treasury, appeared to do in contesting our downgrades. That’s easy, but futile. Better and more enduring is to fix the many things we have broken in recent times.