So the 2014 World Cup is over (congratulations, Germany), and the result was a disappointment for the host nation, to say the least. Brazil’s ignominious 7-1 defeat in the semi-finals will probably go down as one of the worst sports losses in the country’s history. As someone with many very close Brazilian friends, I’m hesitant to suggest that there may be anything good about Brazil’s loss. But I’m going to anyway, from the perspective of anticorruption activism. Here goes:
As David pointed out in a previous post, the rampant corruption connected with Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup (as well as more general issues of inequality and misgovernance) had propelled thousands of Brazilians into the streets to protest. Moreover, this public pressure to address corruption, stimulated largely by various aspects of World Cup overspending and mismanagement, seems to have contributed to more serious action against corruption. In an environment where many in the political and business elite would like the issue to go away (or at least take a back seat), the World Cup provided a powerful symbol that helped keep the focus on corruption as a central problem in Brazilian politics.
In this environment, a Brazilian World Cup victory might have proved a win for Brazilian sports fans but a loss for Brazilian anticorruption activists. In the delirious afterglow of a triumphant victory, the instinct for many might have been to forgive and forget a lot of the graft and shady dealings that went on in the run-up to the event. And a World Cup victory would have been a win for the administration of Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, likely boosting its (and her) popularity and relieving some of the pressure to address many of Brazil’s most pressing problems, including corruption. (There is some evidence, in other contexts, that elected officials have a greater chance of reelection when the local sports team does well; that effect is likely to be much stronger in the context of Brazil’s performance at the World Cup.) Indeed, during the team’s embarrassing semifinal defeat, fans directed a negative–and sexist and obscene–chant at President Rouseff. One need not endorse the behavior of these particular fans to recognize the connection in Brazil between sports and politics.
That said, there are also reasons not to overstate the potential effect of the World Cup defeat on Brazilian politics. For one thing, historically the Brazilian team’s World Cup performance has had little correlation with election outcomes (though of course there are relatively few data points), and many other issues, like the state of the economy, are likely to loom larger in voter’s minds. For another, even though the Brazilian team lost on the field, the Brazilian World Cup as an event has gone fairly well (certainly compared to the Sochi Olympics, another recent international sporting event that inadvertently called attention to corruption problems in the host nation). And President Rouseff is still favored to win the October elections, though the opposition has narrowed the gap in recent polls.
All that said, there’s reason to think that the politics of all this might have been different had the Brazil’s World Cup team triumphed on the field. That failure preserves the Brazilian World Cup–however successful it may have seemed in many respects–as a powerful, emotional symbol of the corruption that has afflicted Brazilian politics for decades, and the ways in which that corruption benefits elites (even those who profess to support greater socio-economic equality) at the expense of ordinary Brazilians. A victory would have taken that symbol away, or at least makes it harder for activists to use. A victory would have meant that the 2014 World Cup was when Brazil won its record sixth championship on its home soil; in such a triumphant moment, who but a spoilsport would want to dwell on how much the stadiums cost to build, or which politically-connected figures got the contracts? With the defeat, painful as it was, the 2014 World Cup remains, for Brazilians, a mere a sporting event–one that, for all the excitement of the games, may continue to serve as a resonant symbol of the corruption that pervades Brazilian politics. That symbol may help keep the pressure on the political leaders, whoever wins in the election in October, to get serious about tackling corruption.