Cup and Culture


Source:Altivo Neto,

The World Cup is underway and Brazilians have painted their neighborhoods in the national colors.  However, as the Folha de Sao Paulo reports, residents have used Argentina’s sky blue and white instead of Brazil’s green and yellow.  Although perhaps partially in jest, the paint job reflects Brazil’s perplexing and difficult moment. Indeed, Brazil played a disappointing 1 x1 tie in its opener against Switzerland and President Temer is officially Brazil’s least popular President with a rejection rating above 80%.  So not much room for optimism.   The electoral campaign for the general elections in October will not officially start until after the end of the Cup but the field of candidates, if one can believe the polls, comes down to right wing former military captain Jair Bolsonaro, leftist former governor Ciro Gomes, environmentalist and former candidate in 2014, Marina Silva and Sao Paulo’s former governor and perennial presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin of the PSDB.

Former President Lula has watched from jail in Curitiba over the last 2 months but continues to insist he is candidate although his corruption conviction excludes his running.  If he is included in the polling, he leads all candidates by a good margin.  Lula also has an appeal pending and it is being judged on June 26 in Brazil’s Supreme Court.  A favorable ruling could lead to his release but he would still be forbidden from running according to election rules.

While the Cup and Carnaval usually bring out Brazil’s well known creativity and light hearted improvisation, things seem to be different this time around as the blue and white paint job in Teresina seems to show.  The economy has barely pulled out of the two-year recession which started in earnest in 2015 and the current estimates for growth will perhaps, at best, keep up with Brazil’s demographics at 1.7 percent per year.  The Temer administration adopted a slogan that Brazil had come back 20 years in 2”.  The population, of course, understood this to mean that Brazil had gone back 20 years in the 2 years since Temer replaced impeached President Dilma Rousseff.

Brazilians are upset.  They have rejected the entrenched politicians and their support of populists to the right (Bolsonaro) or to the left (Ciro) indicate not so much their love of the candidates but mainly the despair of the old political system and the corruption.  Faith and favor in democracy is at an all-time low as Brazilians perceive that politicians have manipulated the system to their exclusive benefit.  While the vote is mandatory, close to 40% of the electorate are likely to null their ballots showing their revolt and consternation.

The foul mood correlates closely with the economic stagnation.  Those with resources are seeking opportunities in Portugal, other European countries and the US even in the face of Trump’s anti-immigration policy.  Brazilians love traveling abroad but only leave definitively when they feel the doors of opportunity have closed and they need to find hope (a defining characteristic of the Brazilian personality) outside the country.  Veja, one of Brazil’s leading news weeklies, reports that some 62% of Brazil’s young people would abandon the country if they could.

Brazilian essayist and play write Nelson Rodrigues during the World Cup of 1958 identified Brazil’s “stray dog” complex as a result of the monumental Maracanazo loss to Uruguay in the World Cup Final of 1950.  He also noted Brazil’s countervailing extreme in the feeling that with Brazil’s first Cup win in 1958, no other country can match skill and innate creativity of the Selecao as evidenced by its unmatched 5 Cup trophies.  Still, moods swing to extremes.   When the national team performs well, everyone takes part with exuberance and solidarity.  When things go poorly, people lament, complain and cry collectively.

Fernando Lanzer and Jussara P. Souza, in their recent book Para Entender a Cultura Brasileira, use Gerd Hofstede’s cultural dimension methodology to interpret.  Indeed, Brazilians score high on Hofstede’s collectivism measure where individuals define themselves as members of a collective group.  They also score high the “power distance” or acceptance of authority and authoritarian aspects of society which affect the individual.  A third dimension deals with “uncertainty avoidance” and here Brazilians also score relatively high demonstrating a desire for predictable and stable situations.  The combination of these measures might help explain the popularity of Bolsonaro or Ciro Gomes or even Lula’s popularity as a benevolent, yet strong, paternalistic figure.

Of course, culture challenges sociological measures and even using all 5 of Hofstede’s dimension in combination, it is still impossible to accurately predict what factors will lead to mass protests or even lasting celebrations.  Everyone knows that carnival lasts less than a week but Brazil’s skepticism regarding the national team will only be alleviated if Marcelo and his companions can kiss the trophy again and even such a victory is pyrrhic  Certainly more is needed to cure and mature the national psyche.

Brazil’s needs are clear and they go beyond the Cup, futbol and partying.  These are diversions and the real demands are for economic growth with less inequality, better basic education, more individual responsibility and respect for others.  While simple, their achievement requires consistent investments in the basics (education, health, water and sewage).  However as long as there is no consensus and polarization continues, Brazil relegates itself to stray dog status, a country with potential but without success.  On the other hand, as Brazilians leave the country, and get increased exposure to the rest of the world, there is also the possibility of broadening participation, greater access to mobility through individual initiative and a recognition of the good readily available in the Brazilian mind, heart and soul.  Mexico’s great educator, Jose Vasconcellos, called Brazil’s mixture the great universal race and It is still possible that this great mestizo country may yet find a way out its quandary.


Back from Brazil after the World Cup

So wow! The World Cup was so much fun and filled with so many surprises including Germany’s 7 x 1 thrashing of Brazil.  The important point though is that Brazil, and I have to include the government here, pulled off a very successful Cup, despite Scolari and family being brought back to reality.  I attended 4 games at the Mineirao and it was a very nice party.  It was very tranquil, the tickets were good, the seats were there where they were they supposed to be, no big fights and no thievery except for a few lame pick pockets which one could expect to find at any event with over 50 thousand people.

Overall, Brazilians were less enthusiastic at the beginning of the Cup then I remember but as Brazil progressed in the Cup interest in the games picked up noticeable and the streets became totally dead at game time.  When Brazil got blown away and then sacked again by Holland, there was much grief and crying plus calls for Felipao’s head. But I am not aware of any collective suicides or a rush to get exit visas.  All in all, the football debacle is being absorbed as best as possible.  People woke up the next day and saw the sun was still shining and went to work or to the beach.  Sure we are spending a lot of ink on analyzing what went wrong but prescient football writers such as Jaeci Carvalho of the Estado de Minas have been predicting since 2010 that Germany would win the Cup and that Brazil needs to rebuild and rethink CBF and the Brasileirao model.

It is unfortunate that the news agenda is so heavily dominated by monopolistic groups with vested financial interest.  Due to this, it is hard to think out of the box and come up with an alternative discourse.  Paradoxically, I am at once heartened and disheartened.  Heartened because, in spite of all the nay-saying and negativity leading up to the Cup, the games were a great spectacle for TV and quite decent for those who attended them and participated at Fan Fest events.  I am also pleased, not by the 10 x 1 combined run over, but by the fact that the government and the ruling party cannot really use the Cup now as a political stick to whack voters into shape.  If Brazil had been able to pull off such a miracle, Dilma would have had a more tranquil reelection.  Now, I am only 90 percent certain of her ultimate victory, perhaps in a runoff. (Could she, like Brazil, lose a semifinal?) Ha!!

Football is a proxy for war in Brazil.  The last time Brazil had bloodshed in an international conflict was during World War II with its small but important expeditionary force in Italy. And the last time before that was over a 150 years ago when the Triple Alliance ganged up on Paraguay.  So football is certainly healthier than say the Vietnam War or current stupidity (thanks largely to tradition and Republicans) in Afghanistan or Iraq.  But now Brazilians are moving on.  Gradually, the country is recognizing that security, education, health, infrastructure and democracy are almost as important and come close to the significance of the novela das 21 horas.

Games, Fun and Excitement (protests) in Brazil

Well, the first round of Confederation Cup games has successfully concluded and to the amazement of many, things came off pretty well.  Brazil soundly defeated a tired Japan team 3 x 0 in Brasilia.  Dilma was roundly booed, as were the other “authorities”.  Rio got to see Italy push past Mexico fairly convincingly at 2 x1 with a full Maracana.  Spain defeated Uruguay 2 x 0 and showed why it is ranked number 1 and will be a very serious contender for the title next year.  The game in Recife had a minor glitch after the keys to one of the arenas were lost.  Finally, Tahiti debuted with its first goal on the big stage of international competition but the Nigerians prevailed 6 x 1 in Belo Horizonte.  All in all, the stadiums pretty much functioned as expected but there were some glitches like the 3G not working in Brasilia.

Outside the stadiums, the picture has been a bit different.  Sao Paulo attempted to raise bus fares by about 10 U.S. cents. Fare hikes usually draw attention. But now there have been large and, at times, violent conflicts.  Sao Paulo has been the epicenter, but the protests have spread to other Brazilian cities, including Rio, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia and Salvador.

There is a small organized group calling for free public transportation and most people see this as fairly romantic and unrealistic. But the movement has been a catalyst for more generalized discontent.  Everyone sees the soccer tournaments as a world stage with lots of media potential.  Brazil’s government also continues to suffer from a lack of legitimacy, even now 25 years after the end of the military dictatorship.  This discontent hangs around in spite of regular elections and is driven by the perceived lack of responsiveness of the political class to the “real needs” of the “people”.

Young people, students, and some politicians are taking up the banner that the World Cup is wasteful and that Brazil has other priorities.  Indeed, protests that began over bus fare hikes have grown to include striking teachers, policemen, and other public servants who are unhappy over poor salaries and awful working conditions.

More diffusely, there is general unrest due to all of Brazil’s well-known weaknesses, including too much corruption. The high cost of living and prices increasing even more during international soccer events in Brazil, including the high costs of tickets to the games, have cast a spotlight on inequality in Brazil.

Add to this the shortage of good roads and schools, the lack of doctors and health-care professionals, paltry pensions for private-sector employees, and a minority of overpaid and underworked high-profile public sector executives (known as ‘Marajas’ in Brazil), and the list seems nearly endless.

The attempted bus fare raise coalesced this diffuse malaise with the aid of social media and even the regular media which cannot afford not to publish the sensationalist pictures of instances of police brutality and depredations (some caused by protestors but some caused by the very forces which are suppose to be protecting public order).

The question everyone is raising, including high-ranking government officials,  is where all of this is headed.  President Dilma, wisely said today that peaceful protests are legitimate.  So far the workers unions, largely allied to the state and the PT, have not joined the protests.  (How much they might benefit is unclear as workers in the formal sector have “vale transporte” or free subsidized use of bus service already).  So without more massive popular support and without union resources, the federal government can push the problem back on to the state and municipal authorities who are in charge of local services.

Right now, the movement is too diffuse and there is no clear leadership and the goals are not well articulated.  There are no generals to overthrow.  There is only a popularly elected leftist civilian government which only partially can deliver the demands of protestors and others in Brazil.  The Confederations Cup, World Cup and Olympics may seem like bread and circus, especially to the traditional middle class, but most people are proud that Brazil has the events and are willing to put up with the accompanying waste and the ongoing opportunities for illicit gain.

Until Brazil’s political culture evolves to a much higher level of maturity, it is unlikely that the current protests will have much impact and little will remain after the tear gas has cleared, except the very slow process of institution building.

So if you are going to the games, plan around the protests.  If you are out protesting, be prepared to run from the police, their batons, smoke bombs and tear gas.  If you are part of the police force, please don’t kill anyone and that goes for the protesters as well. There may be groups out there seeking to create a martyr.  I hope Brazil is beyond that, but you never know.