Brazil’s national team, paced by two goals from star striker Neymar, waltzed to a 3–1 victory over Croatia in the World Cup’s opening match Thursday. Amid what the Associated Press called an “otherwise festive” mood, there were small protests — a few hundred demonstrators took to the streets in São Paulo, an estimated 1,000 marched peacefully in Rio de Janeiro, and smaller groups protested in other cities — and president Dilma Rousseff, who has seen her popularity plummet amid concerns about the cost of the World Cup and a sluggish domestic economy, faced a brief round of boos and chants from fans before the opening match in São Paulo.
The newspaper Estado de São Paulo highlighted both the celebrations of the Seleção, as Brazil’s national team is known, and the skepticism toward Rousseff in Friday’s edition, as Al Jazeera correspondent Gabriel Elizondo noted on Twitter:
That Brazilians both celebrated the Seleção’s maiden match and booed their president may be indicative of how they ultimately view this World Cup: with typical enthusiasm for their team but skepticism and concern over what went into hosting the spectacle. Rousseff has emerged to both demonstrators and those who have chosen to celebrate the Seleção and the World Cup as a face of the problems the tournament has created, exacerbated, or highlighted in Brazil, and as elections approach later this year, broader economic issues have also had an impact on her popularity.
The reasons for the protests that have continued since last summer vary, but a chief theme of discontent from the beginning has been the cost — estimated at as much as $11.5 billion — and the fact that there has not been sufficient investment into schools and heath systems. Rousseff disputed many of these claims in a speech last week, saying it was “absurd to claim that money used for stadiums compromises education in Brazil.” Rousseff points to the fact that Brazil’s education and health care budgets have grown on her watch, and she’s not wrong about that. But she is also missing one of the major points protesters and other observers of this World Cup have raised.
“Brazil actually does spend a decent…amount on education and health care,” Christopher Gaffney, the author of the Geostadia blog and a urban development professor in Rio de Janeiro who has spent years studying the economic issues around the World Cup, said in an interview before the Cup began. “But to not invest equivalently, to invest all this money in World Cup stadiums and not provide basics to society, that’s what people are really complaining about. Dilma, her comments reflect a real disconnect with the reality most people are dealing with.”
The point protesters have tried to make is not that Brazil isn’t spending money on education and health care, but that the government has not made the investments necessary to bring schools, hospitals, and other basic infrastructure needs up to the lavish “FIFA standards” of its World Cup venues. International analyses suggest these desires aren’t misplaced. According to one federal watchdog, for instance, more than 80 percent of schools in the capital city of Brasilia suffer from inadequate facilities. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has also said that improved facilities are among the biggest needs in Brazil’s education system.
Relative to the size of the Brazilian economy, the amount of money spent on the World Cup (and the 2016 Rio Olympics) is relatively small. But local and state governments have had to spend too.
“The cost of all of this relative to [the Brazilian economy] is almost nothing,” Gaffney said. “In the local context, that is an amazing amount of money. In the context of these cities and neighborhoods, those are huge sums of money that are being mis-allocated.”
“To spend $4 billion or more on stadiums, there’s an opportunity cost” for education and other programs, Gaffney said, adding that because state and city governments have taken loans to help finance costs, there were worries among Brazilians that education and health funding could be “the first things cut” if the economic situation worsens (this should not be unfamiliar to Americans, who have spent billions financing stadiums even as schools remain in need of improvements and education and other public services are cut).
Education and health care are not the only issues, as there have been transit strikes, movements from homeless workers, and other problems raised too. Rousseff and other Brazilian officials have expressed the belief that the atmosphere around the World Cup and the team’s expected success in it — Brazil is an overwhelming favorite to win it — would dampen public opposition to the World Cup’s excesses, or at least help cover it up. Studies, after all, have shown that World Cups can boost rates of happiness in nations that host them.
But for as much as there is to celebrate around the World Cup and this national team, Gaffney said it will only act as temporary relief for the nation as it continues to deal with larger issues. And while the protests are smaller and Brazilians seem ready to celebrate now, that they made time to chant against Dilma even inside the Arena de São Paulo on Thursday would seem to support that view.
“Briefly, the success of the Brazilian team will affect the mood of the country,” Gaffney said. “But (it) will not have a long-term impact on happiness.”