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The Political Hangover from Brazil’s World Cup Defeat

The Political Hangover from Brazil’s World Cup Defeat

The World Cup isn’t over yet, but Brazil’s politicians are already facing fallout from the devastating defeat of the national team at the hands of Germany on July 8. That some Brazilian fans decided to react with violence comes, perhaps, as little surprise. The day after Brazil’s historic 7-1 loss to the Germans, rioters burned more than 20 buses in São Paulo, the country’s economic hub. In Belo Horizonte, the city that hosted the match, a gathering of thousands of people turned nasty when protesters set a Brazilian flag on fire and others threw rocks at the police.

The government has now decided to send reinforcements to security forces in both of those cities as well as to Rio de Janeiro, the site of the final match. All this comes in addition to thousands of soldiers already sent to the main host cities as a contingency measure at the start of the Cup. Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo has expressed particular concern about renewed activity by the anarchist Black Bloc movement, masked youths who have provoked numerous clashes with the police in recent months.

But the political repercussions from the defeat are likely to go farther than the actions of a few dozen football hooligans. After all, it was precisely Brazil’s plans to host the Cup (at a cost of some 11 billion dollars) that triggered an unprecedented wave of demonstrations, protests, and political activism a year ago — all of it underlining that futebol no longer occupies the same place in Brazilian hearts that it once did. Now the beautiful game is at the center of an agonized national rethink, a mass, middle-class movement against outdated infrastructure and failing services. And the crushing July 8 defeat is giving new momentum to the demands for reform.

The national team’s horrendous performance against Germany has once again dramatized the link between soccer and the "serious stuff" — the political and economic grievances of this frustrated middle class. Those 90 minutes showed, in the most painful terms, that the hallowed national sport is experiencing the same kind of collective breakdown that many Brazilians see in society around. Even before the defeat, the loss of star player Neymar to injury and the national team’s lackluster performance had already prompted soul-searching. After the loss, one of the country’s main newspapers saw fit to publish advice from psychologists to help parents teach their children to deal with the trauma of defeat.

The humiliation of the country’s most celebrated symbol, the Seleção Nacional (the national team), will inevitably summon up other grievances. If the same defeat had come just four years ago, when Brazil’s economy was growing by more than 7 percent, the situation would probably be far different. Back then, rising GDP inspired plenty of sometimes overblown talk at home and abroad about Brazil’s increasing global stature. The current situation is much worse: the economy is forecast to grow slightly more than 1 percent this year, and the inflation rate recently surpassed the official government target for the 11th time since January 2011. Inflation currently stands at 6.5 percent — not a good sign for the country’s medium- and long-term economic prospects.

So the authorities have good reason to be worried. The peak of the protest movement, in June last year, occurred during yet another international football bonanza, the Confederations Cup, considered a warm-up for the World Cup. The country was shocked by scenes of urban battles between protesters and an aggressive police force, the first large-scale protests witnessed by Brazilians since the "Fora Collor" (a wave of demonstrations led by students in 1992 to demand the impeachment of unpopular president Fernando Collor). Last year’s demonstrations continued to disrupt Brazilian cities for months, only petering out just a few weeks before the World Cup got under way. Many of the protesters drew attention to the huge costs involved in hosting the global soccer championship, which they used to point up deepening disparities between rich and poor as well as lagging investment in public goods ranging from education to public transport. The anarchists of the Black Bloc joined youth activists and middle-class groups to rally around the slogan of "Não Vai Ter Copa" ("There will be no Cup").

It’s worth recalling that the spark for last year’s mass protest movement was a  10 percent hike in fees for public buses (equivalent to a mere 10 cents at current exchange rates). The demonstrations quickly snowballed, ultimately mobilizing one million people in the streets on 20 June. Instead of the demands for political and press freedoms that dominated other protest movements in the Arab world and Turkey, Brazilians called for urban mobility and improved public services. The past year or so has witnessed a profound re-evaluation of national priorities — and it comes primarily from the roughly 37 million people who joined the country’s middle class between 2001 and 2011.

Demonstrators have consistently played on the link between high-profile football events and the country’s broader grievances ever since the Confederations Cup. Protesters have scored points by calling for "hospitals and schools according to FIFA standards," an ironic reference to the international football authority’s strict demands for top-quality stadiums. Just to make things even messier, the anarchists have managed to maintain their mobilizing power even as middle-class protesters have drifted away from the rallies. The Black Bloc has accordingly hijacked many of the protests this year with vandalism and violence. In February they even caused one death, when a demonstrator hit a cameraman with a firework.

The possible revival of large-scale protests gains additional resonance from the approach of Brazil’s next general election on October 5. Members of President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet and campaign team have already held a crisis meeting to study the repercussions of the "incident" (as one of the ministers referred to the July 8 defeat). Her campaign is now reportedly betting on the president’s photo opportunities with foreign leaders at the BRICS Summit in the northeastern city of Fortaleza next week as their big chance to present a "positive agenda" in the wake of the World Cup.

So far no one is really predicting that the defeat will have a decisive impact on the October election: voters worldwide tend to have short memories, especially for one-off events like a football match. Yet the pundits should beware. The current economic slowdown and middle-class discontents already make for a highly volatile mix. The world-class defeat suffered by Brazil’s national team could be just the right accelerant.

Antônio Sampaio (@antoniosamp) is a research analyst for security and development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), focusing on Latin America.