Brazil Is ‘Totally Screwed’

The land of sun, sex, and soccer couldn’t be more down about the World Cup.

Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO — The morning after Carnaval this year, garbagemen in orange pennies walked the foggy beaches, sweeping together mountains of trash along Rio de Janeiro’s famous coastal promenades. As they cleaned up from Brazil’s annual mass party they sang in unison, while hung over passersby trudged through sand and shared with them wry smiles: "Packed airport, stopped traffic, chaos all over, ai ai, ai, ai ai ai / People on all sides, all hotels full, metro choked, ai ai ai, ai ai ai / Imagine during the Cup!" They had their work cut out for them: The majority of Rio’s garbagemen had gone on strike during the celebration.

But just hours later, the scene on the freshly cleaned Ipanema Beach returned to the product Brazil sells best: no-worries happiness. Sweaty Brazilians in skimpy bathing suits gathered their beach chairs into semicircles facing the blue-green waves as they filled each others’ cups with beer, laughing loudly about their Carnaval shenanigans as smiling vendors hawked fruit salad and traveling musicians kept everyone tapping their sandy toes to samba’s catchy rhythms.

But if the piles of garbage seemed high after Carnaval, imagine during the World Cup. Hosting the world’s biggest sporting event, which begins on June 12 and runs for a month, was supposed to be an opportunity for Brazil to showcase its organization, development, and competence. But with corruption rife, infrastructure crumbling, and constant street crime in the country, most Brazilians sense that this opportunity offers more bad than good. They await the Cup’s arrival the way high school students might await a test they haven’t studied for.

Nothing encapsulates this sense of impending doom like the phrase imagina na Copa, "imagine during the Cup." The three words first came to prominence through the popular song of the same name released last year by the superstar country duo Fernando e Sorocaba. The phrase is chanted throughout Brazil, echoing out from street protests and during a recent bus strike in São Paulo, and is now trending on social media as #imaginanacopa. The concept captures both the disbelief of Brazilians that the organization of the Cup will run smoothly as well as their dread of what impact the mega-event will have on day-to-day life in the 12 host cities. 

While in former host countries Germany and South Africa the local mood was celebratory upon the opening of the World Cup, here Brazilians are preparing for lockdown before soccer fans invade their country and Cup-related festivities crowd their streets. Those with the means to do so are fleeing the country ahead of the kickoff. Airlines have offered discounted "escape" fares over the past month for those desperate to get out. Rafael Pereira, a lawyer from the southern city of Porto Alegre, which will be hosting five of the 64 matches, said he saw no other option. "I’m not going to stick around to watch this disaster unfold. I love soccer as much as any Brazilian, but no way; I’m out of here. I’ll be surfing in Peru."

But with a 2012 average monthly income of $850, according to a report released last week by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), most Brazilians can’t afford to leave the country for a month. Instead, they say they will just lay low. "We’re stocking up on everything," Yessica Souza Guimarães, a 28-year-old administrative assistant and mother of two, explained as she leaned over one of three shopping carts full of food at a grocery store in São Paulo. "I don’t plan to leave the house until it’s all over." 

Beyond the traffic and inconveniences the World Cup will bring to daily life, some fear it will bring something even worse. In the back of Sat’s, a popular chicken joint in Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood, the tone of a rowdy Saturday night darkened as the topic turned to the Cup. The bar owner, Sérgio Rabello, spoke with a burning intensity.

"Look at crime in our country. Our city is out of control. The police are underpaid and abusive. And now a bunch of gringos will be showing up rowdy and drunk. There’s no way this mixture will go well. This cup is going to be like a bomba going off. People are going to die."

His fears are not unfounded. Rio is in the midst of a crime wave on the dawn of the World Cup. Homicide numbers are increasing in Rio state, with 1,459 people killed just since January, a number that nearly matches the high-water mark level of 2008, the year Rio’s favela "pacification" program began, with its aggressive police sweeps through the city’s roughest areas. The attempt to stamp out crime in the favelas may have even driven up street crime in other neighborhoods; street robberies and vehicle theft numbers jumped this year as well. Even the police are under fire: Police mortalities are up 40 percent from last year, driving some police to walk off the job, demanding higher pay.

In an attempt to avoid the perfect storm of police strikes and street protests during the World Cup, the government acceded to the threat of strikes by offering a 15.8 percent pay raise to federal police agents and calling an additional 5,300 federal troops from the military into Rio. Whether the additional cash and manpower will make an impact in preventing crime from marring the experience of the 900,000 visitors expected to descend upon the city remains to be seen.

And instability goes beyond crime, too. Major cities all across Brazil came to a halt last June with mass street protests set off by a five-cent hike in bus fares. The protests occurred during the Confederations Cup — a sort of World Cup test run — leaving the government shaken on the issue of domestic security during international events. The bus and police strikes over the past month underline the fragility of a functioning Brazilian state.

Imagining the Cup is an exercise in envisioning everyday inconveniences, but at a greater level, Brazilians worry about the longer-term consequences of an $11.5 billion event in a country plagued by corruption. In reality, the event is likely to cost closer to $13 billion; the $11.5 billion price tag for federal, state, and host-city preparations was last updated in September of last year, and many of the works included in the preparations are still unfinished. A recent Pew poll found that 61 percent of Brazilians "say hosting the World Cup is a bad thing for Brazil because it takes money away from schools, health care, and other public services." And while one-third of respondents believe the tournament will create more jobs and help the economy, that hope is tempered by an overwhelmingly negative perception of how President Dilma Rousseff is handling corruption. For Brazilians, part of the World Cup package is not just a suspicion of corruption but a virtual guarantee.

In 2013, Brazil ranked 72nd out of 175 countries on the Corruption Perception Index compiled by Transparency International, a precipitous drop from its 43rd-place ranking the year before. The ranking for 2014, many believe, is almost guaranteed to be worse. Further, a new anti-corruption law is so rife with loopholes that many observers believe it may, perversely, increase corruption.  

In 2007
, when Brazil first won its bid to host the 2014 World Cup, the excitement was palpable, from the parties in the Amazon basin to the fireworks over the Christ statue in Rio. Famously soccer-crazed, Brazil is used to being near the center of attention every four years: The national team has won the famous golden trophy five times and been in the finals another two times. Brazilians collectively mourned the loss in the finals the last time Brazil hosted the event, in 1950, adding to the urgency for a thumping victory this time around. But for once, this time Brazilians are not so much worried about what happens on the field as they are about what happens off it.

Away from the glare of the stadium lights, many Brazilians are afraid of how their country will be perceived with all eyes on them. The recent Pew poll found that 75 percent of Brazilians think their country should be more respected abroad than it currently is. But they are evenly divided about whether the World Cup will help Brazil’s image. Many fear that the world will view them as just another Third World country, not ready for primetime.

A series of structural failures during the stadium constructions, including the deaths of eight construction workers, have frayed the nerves of Brazilians. As she watched the news of the collapse of part of a stadium in São Paulo, Tânia Maria Martins, an environmental activist in the northern state of Piauí, said, "God help us if this happens when people are in the stadium during the Cup. What a shame it would be." Fernando Morimoto, a businessman in São Paulo, complained as he waited in line for a taxi at the São Paulo airport about how the electricity had gone out at the airport in Rio, leaving him stranded there for eight hours. "What do you think the gringos will think of us when they can’t even use the airport because the electricity fails? Do you think they’ll be impressed?"

Some Brazilians don’t need to even ask these rhetorical questions. "We’re not afraid of embarrassing ourselves because we know we will," says Thiago Baranda, a public servant from Manaus. 

Infrastructure remains a major challenge for Brazil. In the 12 host cities, the construction of new stadiums draws a stark contrast against the crumbling infrastructure that cries out for attention. But as with so many public works in Brazil, many of the stadiums are still being finished just days before the start of the Cup, and other facilities, such as Curitiba’s media center or Fortaleza’ s airport terminal, have been all but abandoned midstream.

In preparation for the Cup and for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the government promised to organize its visitor reception infrastructure. But these efforts often seem to only exacerbate the problem. Waits for taxis at train stations and airports can be hours long, thanks in part to the "streamlined" system of check-in kiosks and taxi stands introduced ahead of the World Cup. And for tourists hoping to stadium-hop during the tournament, beware: Last-minute domestic flights are often prohibitively expensive, and robberies on buses are commonplace. In many places, the interstate freeway system is a broken patchwork of cement where driving the speed limit is a wild, swerving ride taken at the rider’s own peril, and scores of Brazilians die in accidents each holiday weekend.

Preparations for the Cup were packaged into election promises during the last presidential election. Now many of those promises have been revealed to be unmet. For example, in 2010 a $300 million fund was set aside to bolster national park infrastructure in anticipation of the event under a project called "Cup Parks." It recently came to light, however, that only 0.15 percent of those funds were distributed.

On June 1, in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, a party was held to celebrate the inauguration of a bullet train connecting the two cities.* The party was tongue-in-cheek, of course: Construction on the project has yet to begin. During the recent Easter holiday, the 270-mile trip between the two cities on the potholed two-lane road took 12 hours. Millions of fans will be making this journey over the coming weeks. Brazilians would likely recommend imagining being somewhere else.

But "Imagine During the Cup" is not the only slogan Brazilians are using to communicate their dread about the imminent train wreck of the World Cup. Other sayings are scrawled across walls in every city across the country, with more appearing every day. The pedestrian crossings in Rio are now stamped with "FIFA Go Home." In the historical center of Salvador, a coastal northeastern city, "Copa Para Quem?" ("The Cup for Whom?") scars the brightly colored colonial buildings. And in early June, angry, underpaid teachers gathered outside Rio’s courthouse, shouting, "Não Vai Ter Copa!" ("There will be no Cup!").

But while these other slogans often tend toward the political, there is something pure about the "Imagine During the Cup." It is not a demand. It is not a rhetorical question. Instead it speaks simply to the nationwide dread that cuts across all segments of society. It is Brazilians united as one, as equals, shaking their heads, looking each other in the eye, and muttering under their breath, "We’re totally screwed."


*This sentence originally stated that the party was held in late May. It was June 1. Return to reading.

Shannon Sims is a lawyer-turned-journalist and a former fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and the International Women’s Media Foundation. She has been based in Brazil for nearly a decade, and her reporting most often appears in the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek. Twitter: @shannongsims

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola