The dramatic entertainment provided by the 2014 World Cup finals has been one happy surprise in Brazil; another has been the comparative absence of the street demonstrations that exploded across the land during last summer’s Confederations Cup warm-up.
Protest marches have been staged at various times, mainly in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre. But they have seen nothing like the intensity or anger or vast numbers that generated international headlines a year ago.
This is certainly not because the government of President Dilma Rousseff has enacted sweeping changes or improvements to the daily lives of a population of 300 million. Brazil this year is largely the same as it was last year and this writer travelled both then and now across some of the vast distances of what Fifa president Sepp Blatter describes as “a continent rather than a country”.
Brazil is one of the largest countries on the earth. This factor is almost unnoticed abroad. Whereas the United States, Canada, China and Russia are all geographically horizontal, Brazil is — like India —vertical.
But Brazil, unlike India, shares the length of its continent with Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
It’s so big, it’s hidden.
The size contributes to governmental problems and Brazilians have long been inured to an acceptance of wide levels of corruption within the three sectors of administration at federal, state and city level.
Impatience and anger at “vanishing money” was a cause last year for which Fifa and its World Cup served as a spark of provocation and a clear target. Not that this is anything new. The World Cup and, to a far greater extent the Olympic Games, have always provided a convenient publicity window for anyone with a grudge about anything.
Sports minister Aldo Rebelo believes that the change in mood has been brought about partly by Brazil’s love of football but partly because of a greater sense and understanding of the realities.
He told this writer: “The demonstrations last year were viewed as demonstrations against the Confederations Cup but they happened because the population wanted to protest against problems with bus fares, education and health. Yes, some people tried to give it a flavour of a demonstration against the World Cup and that was the message the media took away, but that was not the case at all.”
Rebelo had always insisted back then that the World Cup would not see similar flare-ups but he was one of the few to say so and was widely disbelieved. Instead, he has been proved correct.
He says: “When people started publicising that there would be protests against the World Cup, I never believed in that because I trusted that the World Cup, because of its meaning to the world and to Brazil, would absorb all these dissatisfactions.
“It’s because in Brazil, football is not only a sport like any other; you must realise that football in Brazil is a part of the identity of our people beyond being a sport. It was the first platform of social development for the African descendants and the native peoples and the poor population to be able to emerge in Brazil socially and economically.
“It’s like a window that opened up in a country of great inequalities when there was not even education offered to this stratum of the population, (so) it’s very dear to the population. They have understood that the World Cup cannot, on its own, be a panacea for all Brazil’s problems and inequalities. But it helps to move forward.”
Transport, largely, has worked and so has the organisation. Brazilians are starting to take pride in what has been achieved and put on show for the visiting world.
Early fan and tourist arrivals from abroad were surprised by an apparent lack of fervour within the country for the World Cup. Certainly, Brazilians everywhere — man and women, boys and girls — proudly wear the yellow shirt in their daily lives, at work and at home. But that was it.
Now many alleys and lanes of the favelas (slums) are festooned with yellow and green ribbons and cars can be seen with small Brazilian flags flying from the windows. But that was not the case at the start: the World Cup has been a slow burn.
Brazil’s own achievement in reaching the semi-finals has kept that flame alive and — win or lose against Germany here in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday — they will go to the last weekend even if “only” for Saturday’s third-place play-off rather than Sunday’s final.
This has been a relief for Fifa though questions will go on long beyond the tournament about some of the inadequate refereeing. This includes the Spaniard, Carlos Velasco Carballo, whose failure to keep control of the Brazil-Colombia quarter-final was directly to blame for Neymar’s exit from the finals with a back injury.
Brazilians are not so much angry about Neymar’s absence as depressed. Still they have been reminded, as old hero Tostao told me, that in 1962 Pele was injured in the second group game and ruled out of the finals.
Amarildo, his young deputy, stepped in to score crucial goals all the way through to, and in, the victory over Czechoslovakia in the final. Who knows, they say, maybe Neymar’s injury is a good omen.
Just another example of the positive thinking that has changed the mood on the streets.