June 8, 2014 7:47 pm

Pre-match nerves before the big game

A triumphant World Cup can lay controversies to rest

What a difference between Brazil’s performance on and off the pitch. Its footballers are renowned for their dazzling skill and jogo bonito – or beautiful game. But in 2007, when then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil the rights to host this year’s World Cup, he performed the political equivalent of simply booting the ball up the pitch.

Expecting a nation known for its lousy roads and poor infrastructure to run purposefully after that wildly punted ball may have seemed plausible at the time. Back then, the Bric club of emerging powers was all the rage and Brazil could seemingly do no wrong. But the Bric brand has since dimmed, and Sepp Blatter, head of Fifa, the international football body, has even said Brazil’s World Cup preparations are the worst he has ever seen. This is not the promising narrative Brazil once imagined.

Still, the tournament’s 12 stadiums will probably be ready in time, even if at the last minute. And as President Dilma Rousseff has commented, un-Chinese-like delays are part of the cost of Brazil being a democracy with a free media and the right to dissent – civil rights that Ms Rousseff, who struggled against the country’s military dictatorship, has fought for all her career. Whatever Brazil’s shortcomings, these qualities are worth celebrating at a tournament that will take place only a week after the 25th anniversary of the crackdown against the Tiananmen Square protests.

The games kick-off this Thursday when Brazil takes on Croatia in São Paulo. So will begin a tournament that is part sporting spectacle and part the world’s most peaceful demonstration of full-bore nationalism. Indeed, one of the World Cup’s most appealing features is that small countries often do well, even if they are usually European or Latin American. (Apologies to everybody else, but all 10 top-rated teams are from these continents.) Traditionally, they deploy different playing styles: European efficiency versus Latin flair. But that divide has blurred as Latin-American footballers in European leagues have learnt new ways of playing, and brought them home. Brazil’s team, although the favourite, has even been criticised for being rigid. Such homogenisation may be the price, or benefit, of globalisation. But that does not mean the games will lack drama.

Nor will the tournament lack for off-pitch excitement either. Fifa faces tough questions in São Paulo this week about Qatar’s allegedly corrupt clinching of hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup. A broader question is whether emerging countries, with more pressing social needs, should hold such events at all; Brazil will also host the 2016 Olympics. If so, then these should be treated as an opportunity: a chance for sporting events to be hauled back from their fixation with money and buildings, and restored to the games instead.

The biggest off-pitch drama, though, will be that of Brazil itself, especially given presidential elections in October. While there is no correlation between Brazil’s performance in past World Cups and subsequent election results, this time may be different. Last year, more than 1m people took to the streets in protest against shoddy public services with a cry for “Fifa standard hospitals too”. The economy is slowing. Ms Rousseff’s approval rating, although still well ahead of her opponents, is sagging. Brazil can feel mired in malaise.

A victorious tournament might lift that feeling – however momentarily. A bad loss, which might crystallise popular misgivings, could deepen it. For many reasons, the country therefore needs to emerge from a tournament that is judged a success, or at least good enough; especially as almost half the planet will watch some of it. Given Brazilians’ natural warmth and optimism, most likely it will. Let the contest begin.

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