Pelé, the man known as Brazil’s greatest footballer and usually referred to with the honorific O Rei do Futebol (King of Football), enters the room with an air of royalty.
He is appearing at a conference arranged by Iese, the Spanish business school, on the commercial aspects of football.
Pelé is instantly crowded by students eager to have their picture taken with him. Once they are shunted out by a security guard, he sits down for an interview.
Unsurprisingly for a man who owes his rise from humble beginnings to world acclaim wholly to sport, and who has long supported Fifa, football’s global organising body, he is unreservedly upbeat about Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup from mid-June to mid-July and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“For the country, this will be something marvellous, because it will bring many tourists, a lot of foreign exchange, and it will promote our Brazil,” says Pelé.
Despite his enthusiasm and that of Brazil’s centre-left government, first under the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president who led Brazil’s campaigns to host the World Cup and the Olympics, and latterly under President Dilma Rousseff, the mood in the country before the tournament is strangely sombre.
On the minds of politicians, analysts and sponsors is whether there will be a repeat of the mass street protests that shook the Confederations Cup last June, when 1m Brazilians took to the streets. Promised immeasurable economic benefits from hosting the World Cup and a legacy of better urban transport links, Brazilians are disillusioned by perceived overspending on stadiums and under-delivery by the government on other public services, such as schools, hospitals, metros and buses.
The Confederations Cup experience was telling, particularly for Ms Rousseff, whose former record approval ratings plunged after the event. She has since recovered some ground – she still leads her nearest rival in the polls by 15 percentage points – but her position is not as secure as it was before last year’s protests.
“Her approval rating tumbled after last year’s anti-government protests and has never really recovered,” says London-based research house Capital Economics in a report. “Those protests were driven mainly by complaints of cronyism and corruption, particularly surrounding preparations for next month’s World Cup.”
Others believe, however, that Ms Rousseff’s dip in the polls is cyclical and that public opinion will shift once the World Cup is out of the way – provided nothing goes wrong.
“The president’s numbers will probably stabilise during the World Cup and recover as the election campaign begins in earnest after the games,” says Eurasia Group, a political research company.
While a hard core of protesters remain angry over public expenditure on the tournament and are ready to fight on the streets, others are sceptical that the mainstream public will follow them during the World Cup. Brazilian society’s natural shock absorbers – its sense of humour, conservatism and distaste for violent confrontation, and its ability to adopt new trends – are taking some of the fury out of the general protest movement.
Alexandre Gama, the chief creative officer for Brazil at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the UK-based advertising agency, says he was not sure how Brazilians would react when they saw the World Cup and demonstrations side by side. “That is very new for us.”
But he says Brazilian society is excellent at “devouring cultural stuff” and turning it into something not necessarily better but “absolutely not the same”. Take the protests. Mr Gama says Brazil is turning them “into something else with less weight . . . that’s how we deal with differences”.
One example was this year’s São Paulo fashion week. Normally focused exclusively on haute couture, this year one designer’s models carried crosses protesting against issues such as prejudice. The exercise softened the movement, using beautiful people and imagery to make its points, in contrast to the violence of protesters clashing with police on the streets.
Still, there remain plenty of signs of potential trouble. Over the past week or two, for example, a crowd of impoverished and homeless people has invaded an empty parcel of privately owned land near São Paulo’s Itaquerão stadium. They claim the World Cup has raised rents and land prices in the area, making life unaffordable for them and necessitating the creation of this new favela.
One of the invaders is Valdirene Cardoso, who works as a chef’s assistant earns Brazil’s minimum salary of R$724 ($327) a month. “The rent of a two-bedroom house is now about R$600, so we have to choose if we want to eat or just pay rent,” she says.
However Brazilians feel about injustices associated with the World Cup, Pelé for one is keen to try to persuade his compatriots to sort out their differences once the event is over. Get behind the national team, he says. The players have nothing to do with the country’s political problems.