Brazil holds the record for World Cup soccer titles, with five, and this year is the host nation. That should mean nothing but excitement in the country, but preparations for the monthlong event have run over $11 billion in the midst of a troubled economy and an election year, and protests and strikes preceded the tournament's June 12 opening. Jerry Dávila is a professor of Brazilian history at the University of Illinois whose work has focused on race, public policy and social movements in the 20th century. His most recent book is "Dictatorship in South America." Dávila is on the scene in São Paulo for the first week of the tournament and spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
As with Sochi and Russia before the Winter Olympics, a lot has been said about whether Brazil would be ready for these big games. So, is it ready?
As the games kick off, the stadiums are ready. What is not ready are the host of other infrastructure projects that were billed as the long-term legacies of both the World Cup and the coming 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. As a late-industrializing country of continental proportions, Brazil has enormous gaps in infrastructure development, and in rapidly growing cities hosting the matches, the need for public transit improvements is great.
Brazilians have been frustrated by slow or incomplete infrastructure projects, as well as cost overruns and the poor quality of construction. One of the arguments for hosting the Olympics in Rio was that considerable infrastructure was already being put in place for the 2007 Pan-American Games, though many of the facilities were so poorly built they have already been torn down and now need to be rebuilt.
Brazil was billed as an up-and-coming economy during the 2000s, with the World Cup and Olympics portrayed as coming-out parties. What has soured the mood? And what does the nation's handling of the World Cup tell us about Brazil now?
Brazil's economy has slowed, and, for many, the rapidly rising cost of living is stressful. This is not only a World Cup year in Brazil, it is also a presidential election year, so there are many questions being hotly debated.
Over the past 20 years, Brazil has experienced a succession of governments by rival parties that have achieved some tremendous successes. They overcame the hyperinflation and the debt crisis that were legacies of military dictatorship; worked to transform a concept of human rights - developed to criticize the abuses of that dictatorship - into a governing framework aimed at fighting poverty and discrimination; and created innovative social welfare programs that have meaningfully reduced the income gap between rich and poor for the first time.
Still, as impressive as these achievements are, they remain dwarfed by the depth and breadth of poverty and marginalization in Brazil. The protests over the past year have been about many things, but a common thread is anxiety that the scale of progress is out of proportion with the size of the problems in a country that still has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor. The gap between public schools and private schools, or between public hospitals and private clinics is enormous. But it is the gap between those public hospitals and schools and the publicly financed and built stadiums that meet the demands of FIFA (the international soccer governing body) that has become the flashpoint for many of the protests.
The protests are wonderful to see, especially when we compare the 2014 World Cup to the last two sets of mega-sporting events in Latin America. Mexico hosted the Olympics in 1968 and the World Cup in 1970. In 1978, Argentina hosted the World Cup. The difference between those three events and today could not be greater. In 1968, Mexico's ruling party violently suppressed protesters in the days before the Olympics began, killing hundreds. In 1970 in Mexico, Brazil's World Cup victory gave its military dictators a propaganda victory amid the harshest moments of repression. In 1978, Argentina's World Cup took place under the gaze of a military junta that was responsible for killing tens of thousands. The prisoners in the main detention and torture center in Buenos Aires could actually hear the stadium crowds. In this sense, what we see in Brazil reflects the dramatic democratic transition that much of Latin America has experienced in recent decades.
As an American, why do you find Brazil so fascinating?
Brazil and the United States have so much in common: They are both post-colonial societies deeply shaped by slavery in ways that create persistent inequalities and discrimination. They have also been - and continue to be - reshaped by immigration from all over the world. In the United States, the better we understand Brazil, the better we can understand ourselves, and we have much to learn.
For instance, Brazilian governments never codified racial segregation as occurred in the U.S., yet racial inequality is often deeper in Brazil. In response, affirmative action policies are being developed in Brazil even as they are being dismantled in the U.S. Where U.S. critics of affirmative action say that Jim Crow is a thing of the past, Brazilian advocates of affirmative action have succeeded in making the case that race-conscious policies are a needed response to ongoing discrimination and inequality.
Is there a way to explain the importance of soccer and the World Cup for Brazilians?
This is akin to the Stanley Cup, Super Bowl, World Series, NBA championship and the NCAA tournaments combined. Still, there is so much less enthusiasm this year than in the past. It's curious: The corner bars that would normally be overflowing with soccer fans during any World Cup are just as crowded as ever, but the crowds aren't wearing Brazilian green and yellow, they are wearing Croatian jerseys and Mexican flags!
Watching the national team play - and win - in Japan and South Korea in 2002 was a unifying national experience in Brazil, a way of being the greatest on the world stage. Hosting the World Cup in Brazil is something else entirely: It puts the cup, and its infrastructure, in dialogue with Brazil's aspirations for development and the myriad challenges those aspirations face.