Despite Brazil’s 7-1 thrashing by Germany, the country could have had a much worse World Cup. Early in the tournament, I took the Rio metro to a match at the Maracanã stadium. I had never been in such a packed carriage. For minutes it was hard to breathe. When we got to the stadium, everyone tumbled out alive. It could have been different.
Then there was the stairway at the Maracanã, which began wobbling when hundreds of Argentine and Bosnian fans walked up it. It held, and was later reinforced. An overpass in Belo Horizonte built for the tournament did collapse, killing two people. Still, things could have been much worse.
With some luck, Brazil pulled off the World Cup – the organisation, at least. Now comes the question: what’s the legacy? The tournament won’t make Brazilians richer, and yet it has changed the country.
Brazil’s government spent years promising that the World Cup would bring an economic bonanza. But, says Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at the University of Michigan, with whom I wrote Soccernomics, “A substantial, well-researched academic literature shows that if anything the reverse is true: hosting big sporting events is an economic burden.” Brazil spent about $11bn on new stadiums. About half of them are already white elephants. It would have been economically smarter to flush that sum down the toilet, because then at least the country wouldn’t need to spend millions maintaining pointless stadiums. Brazilians should be grateful their government was too incompetent to build most of the planned infrastructure. Projects to plonk new airport terminals in towns that didn’t need them, just for a month of football, were thankfully never executed.
Some people will benefit from the stadiums: chiefly, the construction companies that built them, and the Brazilian football clubs that will play in the more useful ones. The French economist Bastien Drut and Szymanski have shown that in the five years after a country hosts a World Cup or European Championship, league attendances typically rise by 15 to 25 per cent. You’d expect an even bigger boost in Brazil, which has leapt from having some of the world’s worst stadiums to having some of the best. At last Brazilian fans might be able to take their kids to watch matches in safety.
But the bigger off-field impact of the World Cup on Brazil lies elsewhere. Firstly, it’s political. This is probably the most politically consequential World Cup ever, because it’s being held in a big football-mad democracy three months before closely contested presidential elections. The tournament became a political item in June 2013, when anger over the money blown on stadiums helped prompt the biggest protests in Brazilian history. The demonstrators were initially angry about bus fares but the football gave the protests energy and got the media interested. The Brazilian musician and author José Miguel Wisnik explains: “The Cup became an allegory for the state’s incompetence, inability to administrate, corruption.” Before kick-off, President Dilma Rousseff’s approval ratings plunged.
When the World Cup then went unexpectedly smoothly, the allegory suddenly worked in Rousseff’s favour: perhaps Brazil wasn’t badly run after all. Her approval ratings have rebounded to 44 per cent, says the pollster IBOPE, and she’s now expected to win in October. Even the unforgettable 7-1 defeat shouldn’t hurt her. Brazilians didn’t make her responsible for winning the Cup, just for organising it well.
Yet in the longer term, the World Cup has made Brazil a tougher place for presidents. The tournament helped jerk millions of hitherto docile Brazilians into political consciousness. During the Cup, almost everybody stopped protesting and enjoyed the football, but the defiant a cappella mass singing of the national anthem before Brazil’s games was a statement – this is our country, not any politician’s. “There’s now a sort of cloud over the elite: people could take to the streets again,” says Geraldo Zahran, professor of international relations at São Paulo’s Catholic University. “So the elite feels it needs to be more responsive.”
More broadly, he adds, the World Cup helped start a national conversation about what sort of country Brazilians want. That conversation won’t die down now.
The World Cup’s other legacy is – even after the 7-1 – happiness. When Szymanski and Georgios Kavetsos of the London School of Economics studied European hosts of football tournaments, they found that inhabitants’ self-reported happiness rose afterwards. Following World Cups, the gain was quite persistent: even two and four years after the tournament, every subgroup studied was still happier than before it.
The key to this happiness seems to be the communal experience. During the tournament Brazilians wear the canary yellow shirts, watch games together over barbecues, and then talk about them the next day in buses or factories. People come to feel more connected to each other. Even the communal Brazilian shame this week is a bonding experience.
In 2016 Brazil hosts the Rio Olympics. The run-up to that will prolong all these effects: wasteful spending, national political conversation and communal feeling. This sporting era won’t make Brazil a richer country – just a better one.
Illustration by Luis Grañena
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