World Cup 2014 panel

The magic is in the air: is the World Cup a ‘megalomaniac project’ that is going well?

EPA/Felipe Trueba

FIFA and the Brazilian government had just one bet. Facing negative international and national press coverage in the months before the World Cup with predictions of unfinished stadiums and airports’ ongoing construction offering unsafe and dangerous prospects for tourists, and opposing enormous street demonstrations and public dissatisfaction with the way the tournament was being put together, the World Cup organisers put their hopes in football’s magical nature.

As soon as the ball started to roll, according to the organisers, everybody would just join in the football party.

So far, they’ve been proven correct. The football magic is in the air. On the field, there is a largely optimistic narrative that the football quality displayed in most of the matches is fantastic. Brazilian sport journalists such as Juca Kfouri report that:

… so far, this is an exceptional World Cup, with the highest goals per game average since the 1970 World Cup.

According many Brazilians, there is a key, outstanding reason for the outstanding level of football played so far in this tournament: the Brazilian mystique. My Brazilian friends, who once were angry with the World Cup preparations, now reconsider their thoughts by saying on social media that:

… a country’s love for the World Cup and the streets’ atmosphere is what matters; what’s the point of having everything well put and on time if nobody parties like us?

Juca Kfouri adds to these comments by saying that:

… there is a breeze of Garrincha’s spirit and futebol-arte blowing in every game.

The main narrative that has filled the major social and mainstream media channels since the start of the event is that the ‘gringos’ (foreigners) have never seen ‘something like that, and just love it’. The warm cheering that underdog sides – such as Australia, Iran or Bosnia-Herzegovina – receive from the audience also helps in building up the excellent atmosphere in Brazilian stadiums.

This ‘football magic thinking’ is not new for Brazilians. In the 2006 World Cup, for instance, the Seleção (the Brazilian team) had a bad and messy preparation for the tournament. The team leaders – stars such as Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos – were visibly out of shape. On top of that, the team’s key players were more likely to be partying during the competition than concentrating on the matches.

However, nothing affected the faith in the Seleção. Neither the lack of training or fitness, nor the players’ agitated night life would be enough to defeat us. ‘We thought we would somehow score at any moment in that match,’ declared the team’s captain Cafu after a defeat against France caused the Seleção’s early elimination from the tournament.

It wasn’t preparation, an innovative tactical move nor a substitution, but somehow, with a magic trick, the Seleção would score and beat their opponents. That’s how South Americans live. At the moment, serious media analysts are already claiming that the World Cup should always be played on the continent – ‘there is no bigger passion than ours,’ they claim.

This passion is infectious. The players feel it, and that pushes the World Cup matches to another level.

This ‘magical thinking’ has played a considerable role in Brazil’s World Cup planning. In 2007, when Brazil won the hosting rights, the international and the national economic atmosphere was very different and more positive to Brazil. Lula, Brazil’s first working-class elected president, had big plans for the country. He was in search of the lost time.

Former Brazilian president Lula (L) meets Portugese president Cavaco Silva (R). EPA/Mario Cruz

After decades of recession and lack of public investment, Brazilians were seeing a new era of growth and government venture. With a growing economy that placed Brazil amongst the larger countries in the world and the global acceptance of its social inclusion programs and its positive benefits, Brazil should aim to be at the centre of the world.

As a result, Brazil should organise the best World Cup ever. Lula, a football lover, regarded the World Cup as an opportunity to promote Brazil in the global stage – and, of course, to leverage his political party for more years in power.

The plans were ambitious – a few would categorise them as megalomaniacal. Of course, they involved Brazil’s complicated political scenario. With 27 states governed by different political forces – and all of them wanting to be part of the major event – Brazil was not happy to have only eight hosting cities, as FIFA demanded.

After lengthy political negotiations, the local organisers and the state and federal governments decided to build 12 stadiums, a few in places such as Manaus, Brasilia or Cuiaba where, unfortunately, there is no professional football to justify these new constructions.

To add to the public expenses, in 2010 the Morumbi stadium located in Sao Paulo was rejected by FIFA. After a political scandal involving Lula himself, the former president of Brazilian Football Federation and other local political figures and building company’s owners, a decision was made: a brand new stadium was to be built in Sao Paulo city, which would stage the World Cup’s opening match.

The stakes were high. Brazil was rapidly becoming a huge construction site. Airports were revamped, ‘urban mobility’ renovations, stadium built – there were visible signs of a new era after decades of lack of public investment. The grandiosity of the project faced not only the certain corruption allegations, but also the changing political and economic scenario and the social convulsions that it has caused.

Education levels was a key factor that was not considered in Brazil’s World Cup preparation: despite being one of the world’s top seven economies, Brazil has shameful levels of social inequality.

Educational opportunities are still an issue for Brazil. The fact is that there were not enough human resources to evaluate and to run all the projects necessary for the World Cup. In recent years, the federal government has made huge investments and created several policies to attract lower class students to universities: University For All – PROUNI – is the most well-known of these policies.

However, these educational investments will take a while to produce tangible and sustainable outcomes.

EPA/Tolga Bozoglu

In short, Brazil was not fully equipped to plan such an enormous event. There is still a lack of engineers in the government banks that provide the loans to the buildings to analyse major project applications; there is also a shortage of qualified people to ensure that the public resources invested will not be misused. Brazil’s educational inequality needs to be further addressed to ensure that the social legacy of such major event is consistent.

Regardless, Brazilian authorities were sure that the magic would work again, and Brazil somehow would organise a great event. A few constructions plans were abandoned and this sort of legacy will not be what was at first promised. But there was no thought of main plans changing, so the event could be hosted in existing renovated stadiums, therefore lessening the public expenditure; but still allowing Brazil to host a great World Cup.

So far, their works have proven to be successful. Brazil has proved to itself and to the international community that it can organise a great World Cup, despite the bad predictions. Flights and airports have not been facing many delays and might deliver a tangible legacy for Brazil. The new stadiums look great, regardless of a few break-ins and issues with food supply.

And, of course, the excellent football quality, due to the unbeatable Brazilian atmosphere, is vivid and reliable evidence that the football gods are Brazilians.

Yet, a few demonstrators insist on parading on the World Cup streets while facing unprecedented police violence. Commentators say they lost the momentum and cannot mobilise larger crowds as everyone wants to party and enjoy the moment. I prefer to think that they are a collective conscience that constantly asks us what has happened to the 250,000 vulnerable Brazilians forced to relocate in the name of this party.