Cultural and political legacies of the World Cup: where to now?

The World Cup may be safe in German hands, but the legacy the tournament will leave in Brazil might be contested for some time. EPA/Srdjan Suki

The losing World Cup teams and fans are licking their wounds, while newly crowned world champions Germany will celebrate for at least the next four years. However, the world has already started to ask whether the tournament’s so-called “legacies” were positive and will endure in Brazil.

As we pointed out in our pre-World Cup article about the tournament’s potential legacies, there is much more to be analysed than the immediate economic impact of the event. The intangible legacies, such as its cultural and political effects, must take centre stage in our judgement of the tournament.

Changing public opinion

In the months before the World Cup, there was a prevailing impression – ignited by the Brazilian mainstream media and diffused globally by their international counterparts – that the tournament’s organisation would be an utter failure. Stadiums would not be ready; public transport systems would not be able to cope. As the World Cup approached, fears of a major international embarrassment spread across Brazil.

But the feared embarrassment never materialised. It was not a perfect tournament, and there were plenty of issues, from break-ins inside stadiums to claims of violence and security problems around venues and in other gathering spots.

Overall, however, the World Cup’s organisation was successful by any measure. Some European commentators and academics have even said that the event was better organised than the 2012 London Olympics.

The epithet “the best World Cup ever” has certainly been more than mere hollow rhetoric. The great party atmosphere, the high quality of football, the astonishing number of goals and the massive and convivial presence of supporters from all around the world all contributed to the rapid turnaround in public opinion.

Despite early fears to the contrary, the World Cup’s organisation was a success. EPA/Tolga Bozoglu

Political ramifications

This success is not only a blessing for Brazilians’ self-esteem, but also a clear asset for Brazil’s government. The elections in October will fast replace the World Cup in media headlines and conversations across the country.

The World Cup constructions – airports, stadiums, urban mobility infrastructure – were not just a federal responsibility: municipalities and states were primarily accountable. But given the federal government took the blame for deficiencies in World Cup preparations, it also has been credited for the tournament’s apparent success.

International media outlets have already begun to speculate that Brazil’s crushing semi-final defeat to eventual champion Germany will hurt president Dilma Rousseff in her pursuit of re-election. With no evidence to support their arguments, these commentators seem to base their opinions on the view that Brazilians are passionate and irrational football lovers who are not able to differentiate between their beloved Seleção and the destiny of their country.

As Brazil did not win the tournament, Rousseff’s electoral defeat is inevitable, their argument goes. However, the recent history of Brazil’s presidential elections suggests otherwise.

Since the re-democratisation of the country (in 1985 or 1989, a contested date), five of the six direct elections for the presidency have taken place in the same year as a World Cup. Elections in Brazil usually take place in October or November, so just months after the tournament ends.

In 1994, Brazil won the World Cup, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected president. A few months before the election as the then-finance minister, Cardoso had launched the “Plano Real”, an economic scheme that finally gave monetary stability to a country devastated by years of hyperinflation. Anyone would have been elected as the government’s candidate that year.

In 1998, Brazil lost the World Cup final against host country France. Cardoso was re-elected, and there was no direct relation between football and the election outcome. Four years later, Brazil won the World Cup. Lula, the opposition candidate, won the presidency. Once again, there was no direct connection between the Seleção’s performance and Lula’s electoral victory.

Brazil made early exits from the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. In 2006, Lula was re-elected, and again no link between the defeat and potential government failure can be found. In 2010, Dilma Rousseff, the government’s candidate, was elected, becoming the first female Brazilian president. People voted for her despite the Seleção’s defeat.

Could the Seleção’s failure to win the World Cup on home soil damage Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff politically? EPA/Wenderson Araujo

Brazil’s failure to win the 2014 World Cup on home soil has additional importance for the forthcoming elections. Rousseff’s opposition has already begun to use the Seleção’s semi-final drubbing as political leverage. The major opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, claimed that the lack of planning that could be seen in the Brazilian team mirrors the way Brazil is being governed. Brazil, as well as the Seleção, would perform much better through systematic method and detailed preparation, the opposition argues.

In the same vein, the opposition believes that the World Cup would have been far more successful had it been planned more carefully.

This is a very risky political strategy. Brazilians are hurt and upset by the devastating loss against Germany, but they love the Seleção and their players. There is a huge identification among Brazilian youth with players such as Neymar and David Luiz. And as history shows, Brazilians are independent and clever enough to distinguish between football and politics.

Human rights concerns

Meanwhile, other political legacies emerged during the tournament. The federal government reportedly spent nearly £500 million on policing the World Cup in a bid to suppress potential disturbances.

In a period when Brazil is still searching for the truth about the dictatorship period, the heavy hand imposed on demonstrators and anti-World Cup activists was a clear undemocratic throwback.

The new repression strategies leave a political scar of profound disregard for human rights, which Brazilians will have to overcome in order to build their immature democracy.

The concern over forced relocations also cannot be forgotten. The vulnerable people who were removed from their houses have the right not only to receive a new house, but also to be consulted on where they want to live. These places must have sufficient social support to enable the displaced people to quickly readjust to their new lives.

So far, this is the major negative legacy of the World Cup, one that has to be remembered every day until the right solutions are found.

Football legacy

Finally, the impact the World Cup will have on Brazil’s football culture in coming years cannot be underestimated. There will be a few white elephant stadiums, such as Cuiaba’s Arena Pantanal, that were specifically built for the World Cup and will be unable to attract enough supporters to sustain it. Cuiaba’s regional football tournament has an average attendance of less than 1000.

Some stadiums built for the World Cup, such as the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, may become ‘white elephants’. EPA/Marcelo Sayao

The stadiums have also not been built to integrate into their local landscape and community. It is important that these enormous sports facilities integrate with communities and develop supportive social programs that justify their existence. Otherwise, they will continue to be seen as “rich” intruders in local communities.

Brazilians will also return to the reality of their own national league. After watching top-level football in brand new and crowded stadiums with an amazing atmosphere, the Brasileirão doesn’t look too attractive. In 2013, the league had an average attendance of under 15,000, with matches often being played at 10pm on weekdays at the insistence of Rede Globo, the major football broadcaster in Brazil.

Brazilians will also complain about the quality of the football. Brazil’s better players play overseas, an issue that even the growing economy and good wages for top division players cannot solve. The lack of organisation of the Brasileirão continues to be an impediment to football’s development in Brazil.

The shocking semi-final defeat will certainly leave a perennial blot on Brazil’s football culture and history. The failures in the Seleção’s preparation and in the entire structure of the Brazilian Football Federation must be scrutinised. Change is crucial if Brazil wants to keep its historical dominance over the international football world, which is seriously under threat after many years of a lack of direction for the Seleção.

Brazilian football, as a central element of the country’s culture, needs urgent political and technical revolution. But will this revolution be one of the most important political and cultural legacies of the “best World Cup ever”?

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