Sex, Samba, Soccer, and… Sustainability?

Sex, Samba, Soccer, and… Sustainability?

No nation on the planet has an identity and global image so tied to its national soccer team as Brazil. Entire universes of content are dedicated to the Seleção, its style, and its stars who, like rappers and the odd celebrity, are known globally by one name. It’s rarified air.

Against this backdrop, most of the early coverage of the 2014 World Cup has taken the almost predictable tone of a high-stakes crisis — "everything is on the line" or "Brazil’s audition for first tier status" sort of thing. Failure as hosts (as opposed to just on the pitch) could be disastrous, and not only for Brazil’s self image. It would linger for decades, warding off would-be tourists, foreign investors and partners. It would compound the trauma, seared into the national memory, of its meltdown in the 1950 final on home turf. And let’s face it, almost everyone within reach of television pays attention to the World Cup. With 3.2 billion viewers and 770 billion minutes of attention — hey, no pressure.

The pressure for success of the World Cup is still more intense for Brand Brazil because Brazil has become the default team of the global south, punching well above its marketing weight and projecting out well beyond the reach of the nation’s diplomatic, economic, or historical footprint. Its canary camisa can be spotted in the most unlikely parts of the world, even where football leagues — or indeed any organized sports — are scarcely established. With many American icons discarded in recent years, the trappings of Brazilian football have become a coda for global belonging, post-racialism, unrepressed sexuality and success against former colonizers by bettering them with homegrown style. The world is proud of Brazil and wants a piece of it, as shown by the countless billions spent by sponsors, advertisers, broadcasters and merchandisers around the world. 

Brazil’s prize for getting its mojo back is considerable, not just as a fillip to kick-start its economic recovery, but also as a chance for a long-term stimulant to foreign investment, flows of people, and global markets’ acceptance of Brazilian products and ideas. A successful World Cup, despite the protests, would affirm Brazil’s already attractive attributes (the sex, samba and soccer part) and confirm other emergent stories of inclusiveness, diversity, democracy, resilience, and sustainability.

But at home in Brazil, it’s an understandably complex proposition. There’s the perception of corruption in the global game, the vertiginous and alienating sums of money involved, and the questionable wisdom and efficacy of the $11.3 billion spent on stadiums, infrastructure, and other costs — all while the middle class simmers from disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. A Pew poll where 61 percent opposed hosting the tournament could easily have been a proxy for the 71 percent cheesed off with Dilma Rousseff’s presidency and government in general. But four years after posting 7.5 percent growth and now flirting with recession, you can’t blame Brazilians for not being in any mood to dress up for guests.

And people around the world will give them a good, long look even without their Carnaval makeup. They expect a show selling the allure of sex, samba, and world-beating futebol, but they are also prepared to look at the diverse and contested texture of the country beyond these mid-20th-century tropes. For those outside looking at Brand Brazil in recent years, the complex struggles towards upward mobility in the favelas and controversy around pacificação are only somewhat offset by newly recognizable claims of sustainability and inclusiveness in Brazilian products as diverse as Itaú banking, Natura cosmetics, and Embraer airplanes. Meanwhile, global investors are looking for a signal of competence. They don’t expect Zurich or Hong Kong levels of efficiency, but they do look for signs of mature, consistent, and authentic responses to challenges. 

Brazilian authorities at all levels have an opportunity to turn the World Cup into a teaching experience by the way they defuse protests and authentically fess up to the underlying concerns, both those of the protesters on the streets and the ones simmering quietly in their homes. To pass the test, they can’t retreat behind the mask of perfection. Brazil is messy and imperfect. It should go with it and embrace its improvisational brilliance.