This is the year for Brazil

Brazil - land of colour, music, soccer, sensuality and social unrest

It was Pele, the greatest player of them all, who first anointed his beloved futebol with the now universal sobriquet 'O Jogo Bonito' aka 'The Beautiful Game.'

Maracana, Rio, Brazil

No other country on earth is so mythically linked with football, so a World Cup in Brazil makes perfect sense. In fact, an outsider must wonder how such a huge soccer-obsessed country has not hosted the game's biggest show since 1950.

Brazil is the fifth-largest nation on earth and the sleepiest of sleeping giants, so much so that politicians have used the phrase 'the nation of the future' with unthinking pride. So when will it all be ready?

It should be. Now it is a BRIC nation, one of the next generation of global powers alongside Russia, India and China and with almost 200 million people.

And hosting this summer's World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games is supposed to rubber-stamp Brazil as the country of the present and not the future, a bona-fide South American super-nation.

In the eyes of the world everything was always rosy: The colour of the Rio Carnival, the samba and the bikini-clad girls on Ipanema and Copacabana, the happy children playing football on the beach, a nation personified by Carmen Miranda with the fruit on her head.

Yet 2013's 'summer of hate' sent a different image of Brazil around the world as thousands protested and riots turned nasty. Expensive bus fares was the catalyst but the nation's spending priorities and the 'waste' of the World Cup became the focus. Pele has waded in ineptly, first criticising, then siding with and then just lamenting the protests.

"Brazil", intoned FIFA President Sepp Blatter at the start of this year, "has started work much too late. No country has been so far behind in its preparations since I have been at FIFA."

"We are not ready" was the less than feel-good message from General Secretary Jerome Valcke in April this year, referring to World Cup preparations. A month later he added, ominously, "We have been through hell."

The International Olympic Committee added salt to the wound by calling Brazil "the worst prepared" Olympic host it had ever seen.

Waving the white flag at FIFA so early on is an attempt to pre-empt criticism before the big kick-off on the 12th of June, but the proof is in the pudding.

The dominant narrative in global news has largely been of a country on the up: Brazil is projected to become the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2050, with only China, the USA and India ahead of it, while their government eyes a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The evidence of economic prowess is clear: Brazilian oil giant Petrobras is the fourth-largest non-financial company on Earth while Brazil is the fifth largest agricultural producer, No.3 for fruit and meat and No.1 for coffee and sugar.

When vast new oilfields were found in 2007 the nation's stock exchange boomed, and the country moved onto France's shoulder as the sixth-largest world economy. As a vote of confidence in its future, China overtook the USA as Brazil’s major overseas investor in 2009. Salaries have risen and millions have been lifted out of poverty thanks to bolsas familias (family allowances).

Yet the country's dark side is also hard to ignore. Crime is a constant issue for the locals, let alone for tourists, so a heavy police presence will greet the half a million visitors expected this summer.

Recent films like Bus 174 and City of God have brought the favelas, the jaw-dropping shanty-towns dotting Brazil's sprawling metropolises, to the world. A quick peek on GoogleEarth and the social apartheid of Rio and Sao Paulo is laid bare. This is a country which still has a long way to go.

Behind the glowing statistics lies a nation handicapped by extremes of wealth and poverty. The World Bank states that the richest 20% of Brazil owns 33 times as much as the lowest 20%, placing the country in the top ten of unequal nations on earth. Less than 3% of the people own two-thirds of the land and while the top 10% take almost half the nation’s income, the bottom 10% are illiterate.

In GDP per capita, Brazil actually trails the rest of South America. The Economist rates it as low as 37th for business competitiveness.

This inequality has led to swathes of gated communities, helicopters and a burgeoning security industry: Brazilians are afraid of each other, and with double the murder rate of the USA, can you blame them?

Governments sell Olympics and World Cups to their doubters with the carrot of glistening new infrastructure, but in Brazil's case the promised new airports, roads and rail links have not arrived. At the same time, the cost of the as yet unfinished stadia has jumped to a staggering three times that of South Africa in 2010.

By last year, it was clear frustration was about to spill over, and it did, across the nation. 60,000 people demonstrated in Belo Horizonte alone, one of this summer's host cities.

Who needs expensive new sports arenas when the people do not have proper schools or hospitals, ran the incontestable logic of the movement.

President Dilma Roussef has struggled to maintain authority as a doubling of income per capita and the lifting of 20 million out of poverty over the last decade have led to spiralling expectations for faster change.

The anger is somewhat middle-class driven. The lives of the rich elite have remained cocooned while some of the poor have seen their lives bettered. But the rest of the population is demanding to know why they are paying European levels of tax without concomitant European standards of living.

A month of football will make everyone happy, especially if the home team lift the cup, but Brazilians are itching for real progress, not temporary parties.

The government and FIFA are expecting more unrest this summer, but praying the nation's love of football will stop it from disrupting the nation’s big night on the world stage.

On paper Brazil should already be a superpower: 200 million citizens, a quarter of the world's arable land, plentiful oil and biofuels, and no enemies to threaten it.

But a ragged history of colonialism, slavery and military dictatorships have held back this sleeping giant for decades.

Independent from Portugal since 1889, Brazil went backwards in the second half of the twentieth century following a military coup d'état in 1964.

Rapid growth soon led to economic ruin, censorship, torture, political murders and rampant inequality.

Democracy returned in 1990, which makes Brazil a young nation at heart. 2014 does offer Brazil a unique chance to promote itself, as the last World Cup Final was watched by an estimated 700 million people.

And it needs more tourist dollars. For all its attractiveness, Brazil barely ranks in the top 50 most-visited countries on earth, attracting almost half the amount of overseas tourists who visit Morocco, for instance. Crime if often cited as the explanation.

Yet if anything can take Brazilians' minds off their problems it is football. While other countries have wars, artists, Nobel Prizes and scientific inventions to celebrate, Brazil can point to its five World Cups as its greatest achievements. Football has allowed a nation with weaknesses to dream it is beating all others with ease.

The adjective Brazilian has also become synonymous in football with flair and breathtaking skill, a world away from the muscular northern European sport Englishman Charles Miller brought to Sao Paolo, like a missionary, in 1894. It feels like Brazilians play football to an instinctive samba rhythm and the phrase sexy football could have been coined for them.

Football is such a potent uniter of a divided nation, a social equaliser bar none, that although there will be protests again in June, they won’t be happening while the green and gold of the seleçao are playing.

The game's potential for manipulation has not been lost on politicians, who have tried to ally themselves to the nation's favourite pastime for years. President Roussef is only the latest leader to schedule the general election in a World Cup year. If Brazil wins, she will surely reap some benefit in November.

Home advantage and a soccer-mad population means Brazil are the clear favourite for the World Cup, so elimination is unthinkable. But at the back of everyone's mind lurks the trauma of 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the World Cup.

On the 16th of July 64 years ago, 174,000 packed Rio's Maracana stadium and millions more listened on the airwaves expecting Brazil to overwhelm Uruguay in the World Cup Final.

Brazil took the lead but Uruguay equalised and then won thanks to a late goal from Alcides Ghiggia, a name which still unnerves Brazilians to this day. A nation was distraught and some fans even committed suicide.

The so-called Maracanazo (Maracana disaster) has obsessed Brazilians ever since. Nelson Rodrigues, the great Brazilian writer, called it "our Hiroshima."

Other writers concur on its significance beyond football: Joao Maximo believed it split Brazilian history into two, Paulo Perdigao likened the footage of Uruguay's second goal to the Kennedy assassination, while novelist Carlos Heitor Cony thought a monument to defeat should have been built, because nothing had ever united the nation more.

Brazil went on to win five World Cups and their 1970 team is feted as the greatest of all time, yet the nation is still haunted by having lost at home 64 years ago.

2014 affords the world's most famous football nation a chance to atone at last, yet the historical baggage of another final at the Maracana will be an emotional burden.

When the tears of joy dry up and the catharsis of exorcising 1950 is over, Brazilians can get back to tackling their nation's myriad problems, but first they must win 'their' World Cup.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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