Guest Column by Paulo Sotero
Not a country for beginners, as composer Antônio Carlos Jobim famously said, Brazil often does what is least expected. It did the unexpected in the World Cup — twice. First, by losing the soccer tournament it was overwhelmingly favored to win at home, and secondly hosting an excellent event, free of the logistical nightmares that were predicted by some and feared by most. It could do it again in the October presidential contest and frustrate the re-election plans of President Dilma Rousseff, who until recently was seen as heavily favored to renew her mandate for four more years.
Here is another surprise: The embarrassing World Cup performance of Brazil’s beloved Seleção and Rousseff’s electoral troubles are unrelated. A Datafolha opinion poll released last week showed that the sour national mood detected by a Pew Research Center survey before the event returned as soon as the games ended. With the economy stagnating and Brazilians increasingly worried about rising inflation and other adverse economic news, 54 percent now say the World Cup brought more costs than benefits to the country, down 8 points since July 1 despite the overall perception that the tournament was a success.
This is not the only disappointing news for the president, who was eager to take political credit for “the World Cup of World Cups,” as she described it. The Datafolha poll also indicated that Rousseff now has one of the highest rejection rates in Brazil’s presidential race history. She will have a hard time keeping her job if she fails, as she probably will, to get an absolute majority in the first round of voting scheduled for Oct. 5. Her leading contender, Aécio Neves, opposition senator and a popular former governor of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second largest electoral state after São Paulo, is now technically tied with Rousseff in a simulation of the second round, to take place on Oct. 26.
At a minimum, the poll suggested this year’s election will be hard to predict. A re-energized opposition, looking to associate the performance of Rousseff’s government to the shameful loss to Germany in the World Cup semifinal, has started to test a slogan in social media. It says “7 to 1, 7 percent inflation, 1 percent growth,” which may be an optimistic expectation in light of the country’s rapidly deteriorating economic outlook. Mixing soccer and politics in the land of soccer does not necessarily work, as popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, an avid soccer fan and Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, discovered. Speaking to a business audience on June 24, Lula signaled that his Workers’ Party was preparing to wrap Brazil’s expected World Cup triumph around Rousseff’s re-election campaign. “We will win this trophy because Brazil needs it,” he said, imprudently.
In reality, Brazil did not and does not need to win another World Cup. It will do quite well without a sixth title, especially if it learns from the experience and focuses its energy into achieving more meaningful measurements of national success. The most obvious and urgent task is to revive the economy, which will be the battleground of the presidential race. Regaining the lost confidence of investors in economic policy management and significantly improving indicators of productivity and competitiveness will be central themes of the debate. Another important topic will be the fight against corruption, which rose to the top of the national agenda as influential politicians of the government coalition were tried by Brazil’s Supreme Court and sent to jail for the first time in the country’s history. The World Cup offered a couple of good lessons in both regards.
Soccer legend Romário de Souza Faria, a 1994 World Cup champion who became a respected congressman, reminded the country of the need to fight harder against corruption after the national team was demolished by Germany in front of the home crowd.
“For four years, I have been preaching in the wilderness about the problems of the National Confederation of Football (CBF), a corrupt institution managing assets of very high market value, using our anthem, our flag, our colors and, most importantly, our human capital — our players,” fumed Romário after the defeat against Germany. For good measure, he added that the politically well-connected Brazilian soccer bosses, are “a bunch of thieves, corrupt gangsters.”
Feliciano Guimarães, a young professor at the University of São Paulo, hit a nerve in a message he wrote to his friends on Facebook. “Soccer nationalism is detrimental [to Brazil…] and has reached its limit,” he wrote after the loss to Germany. He was referring to the effects of a protected market that keeps foreign coaches away and shields their Brazilian colleagues from competition, but harms the national sport by keeping it impermeable to innovations in training methods and game strategies developed in Europe, today the home of the world’s best soccer.
Guimarães’ recommendation in favor of a more open Brazilian soccer market resonated on the Web. It is a useful metaphor to address problems in other areas of national life. The most obvious is the country’s troubled economy, which urgently needs a jolt of reforms to be revived.
Like soccer, Brazil’s economy reached the limit of growth under an inward-looking model of development focused on consumption rather than on making the country attractive to domestic and foreign investments in technology, innovation and activities of higher value to make the nation more productive and competitive. Whoever wins in October will have to tackle the challenge of integrating Brazil into high-value production chains. This means, inevitably, opening up the economy, which is the world’s seventh largest but places 25th in the global ranking of exports and represents a meager 1.5 percent of world trade. This challenge will constrain not only domestic choices in the years ahead but also the direction of foreign policy, which will not be topic in the presidential campaign but has become controversial.
Whatever the outcome of the October elections, the message of openness that underlined Brazil successes and failures at the World Cup is the event’s legacy and will continue to reverberate as the country prepares to host the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. A more universal sports event than the World Cup, the Olympics are a better measure of the attention and care a nation devotes to its people — especially the young. The Rio Olympics will keep the country exposed to the pressures of updating its infrastructure, improving its human capital and being open to the world and competitive. It is a challenge Brazil took voluntarily and will continue to remind Brazilians of what they need to do to advance their country’s interests at home and abroad and continue to gain space and relevance in the world.
This is not mission impossible for a nation that, in the past two decades, stabilized its economy, made impressive progress in the fight against poverty and inequality, added 35 million of its 195 million people to the middle class and achieved many successes that were once seen as improbable, such as institutionalizing a vibrant democracy, developing a highly productive agricultural sector while reducing deforestation, and building Embraer, the world’s third-largest airplane maker and a company emblematic of Brazil’s capacity to do the unexpected.
Paulo Sotero is the director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.