The World Cup – an exercise in soft power that did not go to plan for Brazil

The enduring image of Brazil’s World Cup? Marcus Brandt/EPA

The World Cup has come to an end and what a mixed bag it was for Brazil. Central to Brazil’s desire to host the World Cup was the opportunity to showcase their economic achievements to the world and enhance the country’s prestige and visibility.

They certainly succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to them, but not always for good reason. From protests at the start to humiliating defeats at the finish, the spotlight has not always been positive. But the tournament has also been celebrated as one of the best ever for the great games and this reflects well on the hosts.

Clearly the idea that mega sporting events can be used as catalysts for social development and to pursue specific foreign policy objectives has taken hold. A slew of recent major tournaments have been held by the leading emergent countries known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). There was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Putting on the World Cup and the forthcoming 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil joins Mexico, Germany and the US in a select group of countries that have held these two mega-events within a two-year period.

Considering these events were previously the preserve of developed countries, their staging in the BRICS economies is significant and arguably a marker of the emerging world order.

Underlying this analysis is the concept of soft power, a term coined by Joseph S Nye to describe a nation’s ability to attract and persuade without force or coercion. Sports diplomacy is where sport provides an informal platform for dialogue and building trust between nations.

The sports arena can also be used to highlight a country’s increased economic growth, and to enhance Brazil’s image as an emerging power with relative diplomatic importance that is able to challenge the established world order. Hosting the World Cup, as an opportunity to display its strength on and off the pitch, was therefore part of Brazil’s ambition to be accepted as an active participant on the global stage.

Overturning stereotypes

The Brazilian stereotype is one of carnival, samba, and passion. The country is synonymous with the “beautiful game”, conjuring up images of the famous yellow and green shirts, and an aesthetically pleasing brand of football that has contributed to five World Cup successes. In many ways these stereotypes were overturned for the better. But memories of the home nation’s final performances – embarrassing defeats at the hands of Germany and the Netherlands – will arguably tarnish its rich football history.

Hosting the 2014 World Cup catapulted the country into the global spotlight, providing a unique opportunity to showcase Brazil as an emerging economic power, as well as projecting desired images and messages to the rest of the world. The month long spectacle of the World Cup however needs to be viewed alongside an alternative storyline, one of social injustice, corruption, missed deadlines and frenetic last-minute preparations.

Accompanying risks

There are no guarantees of a favourable return on the binge of public infrastructure spending, nor should staging the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics in 2016 be perceived as a shortcut to enhancing a country’s reputation. The stark reality to the tournament’s build-up was marred by discontent, opposition and civil unrest.

Widespread demonstrations highlighted a range of problems in Brazil, including issues of governance and inefficiency, displacement, socioeconomic inequality and unnecessary public spending (this is the most expensive World Cup in the history of the tournament). Question marks also remain over Brazil’s relaxed attitude to planning, intensified by reports at the start of the tournament questioning the preparedness of stadiums and Rio’s preparations being damned by the IOC as the “worst ever”.

Given the extent to which soft power has dominated the rhetoric of emerging states’ attempts to host international sports mega-events, the spotlight on Brazil is likely to remain for some time. The historic 7-1 collapse of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side against the new football royalty, Germany, will not be quickly forgotten. Plus, the level of domestic discord regarding the priority placed on the tournament in spite of so many other pressing concerns, is unlikely to be diluted in the long-term, especially as preparations for Rio 2016 continue.