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Will the World Cup Actually Help Brazil to Solve Its Problems?

If it does, don’t thank FIFA -- thank the protestors.

Daniel García / AFP / Getty Images
Daniel García / AFP / Getty Images

World Cup controversies in Brazil are supposed to be about team selection and tactics, but this year they’ve focused on much bigger issues: jobs, poverty, public services, and corruption. Past tournaments have been a boon for governments hoping to distract their people — and the world — from exactly these kinds of issues. Could this one be different?

Major sporting events in Latin America have a history of both illuminating and eliding larger homegrown problems. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was preceded by massive protests and the ignominious slaughter of hundreds of students in the capital’s downtown, revealing the ugly authoritarian side of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) regime. And the 1994 World Cup hadn’t even finished when Andrés Escobar, having scored an own goal in a match against the United States during Colombia’s brief campaign, was murdered upon his return to Medellín, then the world’s cocaine capital.

In contrast, during the 1978 World Cup, Argentine cheers at the famous River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires drowned out the screams of tortured political prisoners just down the road at the infamous Naval Mechanics School. The home team won the championship, and the country’s military leaders lasted until 1982, when defeat in combat by Britain in the Falklands (Malvinas) War eroded whatever backing they had gained through sporting victory. Haiti’s brutal dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier had hoped for similar results in the previous World Cup; he was so obsessed with sporting success that he arranged for the last qualifying rounds of the 1974 tournament to be played at home, where Trinidad and Tobago mysteriously had four goals disallowed in their decisive loss to his squad.

The question now for Brazil is what this World Cup brings: a feel good holiday from its domestic woes or deeper societal reflection. Brazil needs the latter, taking advantage of the world spotlight to amp up a larger conversation about the nation’s future trajectory.

After years as a darling of emerging markets, the country has stumbled. Growth is down, inflation is up, and for the first time in a decade foreign investment hasn’t covered the current account deficit. The "easy" fixes — stabilizing its currency, implementing sound macroeconomic policies, expanding basic educational and health services — have already been done. To get Brazil back on an economic fast track, the nation needs to tackle much harder problems: poor infrastructure, low quality education, and the dreaded "Brazil cost" — the onerous mix of high taxes, incessant government regulations, and opacity that make doing business difficult, especially vis-à-vis its emerging market peers.

Discussions are beginning to simmer. They began last summer when upwards of a million Brazilians tooks to the streets in dozens of cities to demand better services and less corruption. In the lead-up to the World Cup police, teachers, and bus drivers have come out in force, demanding higher wages. Polls show that significant percentages of Brazilians want to talk more about how to fix their country than the latest odds (Brazil’s are 3 to 1 to win).

When the international fans go home in late July, the television close ups of star players will be replaced by those of presidential candidates playing to win the October presidential race. Voters will then have to decide who can best deliver on the promises of a better Brazil.

Whoever wins will have the spotlight in 2016, when Rio de Janeiro hosts the Summer Olympics. Many Brazilians are already decrying the billions this will cost and the distraction it will entail. So far the report card for the city’s preparations looks woefully similar to that of the World Cup, with the head of the Olympic committee declaring on a recent visit that preparations are "the worst" he had experienced.

But the back-to-back sporting spectacles give Brazil an added incentive to make progress, learning from its World Cup mistakes to focus on the airports, roads, rails, subway lines, electricity grids, and sewer systems that will matter most for its future. Importantly, the World Cup has catalyzed civil society groups and strengthened the voice of average Brazilians. They now have vital momentum for improving the odds that the next time the international focus is on Brazil, the nation will more closely reflect the image it tries to project.

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