Scottish football legend William "Bill" Shankly, was deadly serious when he said football was not about life or death.
“It's more important than that', he said.
For Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff the World Cup national team success – or otherwise – might well determine her own political life or death in the October 5 presidential election.
At the helm of the ruling centre-left Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT) Russeff is up for re-election. Her assertion that her political fate is not tied to that of the national team – “Brazil might be champion and I could lose the election” – is not convincing.
Quoted in El Pais, Marco Antonio Teixeira, a researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo said “the failure or success of the national team could well affect the electoral fate of Rousseff and of the state governors who have invested large amounts of public resources in the world cup.”
In a football mad nation, politics and the world game are intrinsically coupled. Take for example the 2013 FIFA Confederation Cup hosted by Brazil. Before, and even during, the tournament the event’s million dollar expenditures – at the expense of the appalling quality of public services – mobilized thousands of protestors to the streets and sent Rousseff’s popularity to all time low.
To the relief of the president, Brazil defeated Spain 3–0 in the final, and her popularity rose.
This time around, it’s the same story. Since June 2013, Rousseff’s popularity has been declining exponentially amid mounting public anger on the streets of the main cities. And anger has risen even further due to the brutal repression of protestors, be they schoolteachers in Rio de Janeiro or workers without shelter in Sao Pablo.
It is a violent repression – condemned by Amnesty International – and mainly perpetrated by the militarised police established during the military dictatorship, and kept in place by the democratic governments.
Most Brazilian media and right wing political commentators have led the calls for a heavy hand on the streets.
The media – tightly controlled by private proprietors and closely aligned to the financial sector – have demanded that protests be criminalised as “terrorist acts.”
Once adored player, Ronaldo, added his pinch of idiocy when he suggested stopping protests with machetazos (machete blows).
He is now called the “traitor” by men and women on the street.
The public anger has the support of some very high profile faces. One of them is former national and Barcelona’s star Romario.
Now a Socialist Party congressman, Romario has been leading an anti-World Cup campaign since well before Brazil was chosen as the 2014 host.
And he doesn’t mince words. He called the World Cup “the biggest robbery in the history of Brazil.”
Romario – whose political career has been stellar – was joined recently by the countertenor voice of singer Ney Matogroso in repudiating the definitive feature of this World Cup – corruption.
Writer Roberto Coelho told newspaper O Globo he would boycott the event. He called it a political act against president Rousseff’s mismanagement.
“I can’t step inside the stadiums knowing what is happening outside of them, with hospitals and education.”
And, Gustavo Kuerten, once a top world tennis player, rebuffed the offer to promote the event. “Foreigners will enjoy it, but we won’t because what was promised has not been not fulfilled.”
From the initial euphoria of 2008, the support for the World Cup has dropped from 79 per cent to 48 per cent last April. Just a few days before the initial kick off, the “Brazilians have been cheated,” has become the cri du jour, a scream of protest against the rampant corruption and the event budget blow out.
It is by far the most expensive World Cup ever staged. Approximately 90 per cent of an estimated $11 billion that Brazil is spending on the tournament comes from the state coffers.
As the tournament kicks off – with Brazil beating Croatia 3-1 – the sketch of uncompleted infrastructure, corruption, outrageous expenditure and the deaths during construction of eight workers have displaced the sporting angle from the international news media coverage.
“These days we speak of corruption rather than goals,” said José Veira, a Sydney based Australian-Brazilian.
The PT came first to power in 2003 under the leadership of the charismatic Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula as he is better known.
For his successor, Dilma Rousseff – the former left wing guerrilla member – Lula has always been a hard act to follow. Her win in 2010 was unquestionably due to Lula's popularity. Now, without Lula around and with the debacle that has surrounded the World Cup, the future of the PT in government is in doubt. Some sectors of the PT have begun to lose their nerve, calling for the return of Lula.
Five months from the election in October, President Rousseff is enjoying – as The Economist put it – a “fragile lead.” According to polls, a second round is the best scenario for Rousseff.
A recent public opinion by Datafolha, a polling institute founded in 1983, shows that the president’s approval dropped from 38 per cent to 37 per cent, while the support to Aécio Neves, the governor of Minas Gerais (Brazil’s second most populous state), has risen from 16 to 20 per cent. Behind is the former ally of President Rousseff Eduardo Campos, whose popularity has risen from 10 to 11 per cent.
To win the tournament for the sixth time is the last hope for Brazilians to eradicate the bitter taste of one of the worst organized World Cups ever.
It will also be an international image redemption – partially – of a country aspiring for greatness, but which remains bogged down in corruption, inefficiency and political clientelism, wrongs that might well be the end of the PT in government.
* Antonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and Director of Journalism at RMIT University.
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