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A kick that can rebuild or wreck a people

Dilma Rousseff is trying hard to be a World Cup cheerleader. She has come to the role late in the day.

The one-time student revolutionary was not President when Brazil landed the World Cup in 2007 or Rio de Janeiro secured the Olympic Games in 2009. That all happened on the watch of her presidential predecessor, Lula da Silva.

Also, that all happened in happier economic times, when Brazil’s growth earned it the status of an alphabet initial among the so-called BRIC nations along with Russia, India and China. It was an era of optimism. Better times were round the corner.

But that was an illusion. Brazil even thought it had escaped the fallout of the global economic crash. But all it escaped was the immediate impact. The withdrawal of international investment just came later, bringing a loss of jobs, a loss of confidence and expectations which the government of Rousseff could not fulfil.

A rise in bus fares in Sao Paulo, hitting the poor and the working class, sparked street protests. They erupted just as the Confederations Cup — the World Cup warm-up tournament — landed in Brazil a year ago. Everything has gone downhill since then.

The economic crisis sharpened scrutiny on the $11billion cost of the World Cup and engendered depression and anger. Hence Sao Paulo stages the Opening Match tomorrow but the streets of South America’s largest metropolis do not tell the tale.

No banners, just a few small flags here and there.

Greg Dyke, chairman of England’s Football Association, summed up the mood — or lack of it — when he told this writer yesterday: “The only way you know there’s a World Cup is because there’s a transport strike and you can’t get in from the airport.”

All very different to the excitement back in October 2007 when Fifa’s executive committee decided that the 2014 World Cup should come to Brazil. In truth, it was not a difficult decision: the rotation system has designated that South America should host the finals and Brazil was the only candidate put forward by the continental confederation.

Ricardo Teixeira, president of the Brazilian confederation, was delighted. He appointed himself chairman of the local organising committee and negotiated favourable terms to send matches to as many cities as possible. Far too many, as it turned out, either for considerations of flights, accommodation, security or construction demands.

Teixeira was a member of Fifa’s executive committee and was allowed to get on with the job. Except, he did not. Not until 2011 did it strike Fifa that nothing was being done. That was when secretary-general Jerome Valcke made his impatient comment that the Brazilians needed “a kick up the backside”.

Valcke, Fifa’s World Cup progress-chaser, and president Sepp Blatter have continued to play good cop/ bad cop.

Valcke has kicked, bullied, pressured, threatened, cajoled and pushed the Brazilians to build the absolutely minimum necessary in what little time remained; Blatter has sugar-coated his aide’s anxiety with professions of how this will be the most wonderful World Cup in the home of the jogo bonito, the “beautiful game”.

Certainly there has been a record take-up of tickets, record revenues from sponsors and television and record figures expected from worldwide broadcasts and a four-week social media deluge.

President Dilma has hit radio, television and Twitter with exhortations to the nation to show a happy welcoming face to the world. She is trying hard though, privately, she probably finds the diplomatic demands of the World Cup a distracting nuisance from the challenge to seek re-election later this year.

But responsibility for transforming the mood in Brazil from dour scepticism to delighted celebration — to cover the myriad preparation failings — depends less on Dilma, Blatter and the rest than it does on Neymar and his team-mates in the Selecao.

Brazilian football president Jose Maria Marin, at one of Fifa’s confederation meetings yesterday, defined Brazil as “a country of music and happiness but mainly a country of football”.

You would never guess.

If Neymar and Co rise to the supreme challenge of winning Brazil’s sixth World Cup, all the angst will be forgotten and wiped into the dustbin of football history. If not, even the occasional flags will vanish from the streets of Sao Paulo.


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