RIO DE JANEIRO —
Brazil’s list of feats since ending authoritarian rule in the 1980s is as long as it is varied, including anti-poverty programs pulling millions into the middle class, the democratic election of presidents who suffered indignities under the dictatorship and the surging growth of tropical agriculture to help feed the world.
But instead of coming together to extol such triumphs on the global stage as the host of the World Cup, the soccer tournament starting Thursday with teams from 32 countries, a grim mood is dividing many Brazilians as resentment simmers over the ballooning costs of the megaevent and a sluggish postboom economy saps optimism.
While thousands poured into the streets in 2007 to celebrate Brazil’s winning bid to host the World Cup, bitter strikes are now roiling major cities. In São Paulo, where the opening match between Brazil and Croatia is just days away, riot police Monday used tear gas to disperse striking subway workers. Brazilian legends of the sport, from Ronaldo to Romário, are voicing shame and disgust about troubled preparations in the nation, which has won the World Cup five times, more than any other.
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“This is the strangest atmosphere I’ve ever witnessed in Brazil before a World Cup, as apprehension and apathy threaten the normal excitement,” said Antonio Risério, a historian who explores soccer’s role in shaping Brazil’s national identity.
Only 34 percent of Brazilians think the World Cup will help the economy, which is in its fourth straight year of slow growth, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Thirty-nine percent say the tournament will actually hurt Brazil’s image around the world, according to the face-to-face survey of 1,003 randomly selected adults from across the country.
More than 200 million people live in Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy, and the country has about as many opinions on hosting the World Cup. President Dilma Rousseff, in an interview last week in Brasília, defended loans from state banks for building lavish World Cup stadiums, and said Brazilians were gearing up to embrace the tournament.
“The closer we get to the Cup, the more Brazil is going to show its passion for soccer,” Rousseff said.
But during an election year in which political analysts are arguing about the influence that the Cup’s outcome may have on presidential campaigns, with Rousseff’s government clearly hoping for a tournament unmarred by major problems and a strong showing by Brazil’s national team, signs of such enthusiasm still remain somewhat sparse.
The sense of malaise is partly about the preparations for the World Cup itself, but also reflects a deeper, underlying anxiety about the direction of the country as the economic slump has persisted amid waves of anti-government protests, reflecting demands for better services from the growing middle class.
The divisions are manifesting themselves in unlikely ways; even as many Brazilians voice support for a soccer team that has long been the nation’s passion and pride, others are expressing unhappiness with placing the sport above other priorities.
Before a warm-up match last Friday between Brazil and Serbia, a subway strike in São Paulo wreaked havoc on millions of commuters. Raising the fear of more unrest, police officers dispersed the strikers by beating them with batons in scenes recorded on smartphones and spread in social media.
The game disappointed, too. Brazilian fans at the stadium booed even Neymar, the 22-year-old star of Brazil’s national team, which limped to a 1-0 victory.
The jeers for stars who traditionally achieve something resembling the status of minor gods came as disenchantment festers with the country’s soccer establishment, tainted by its ties to scandal-scarred FIFA, the organization that oversees international soccer and the World Cup, and revelations of bribes to top Brazilian soccer officials.
While the national team is still received warmly in many places, the players had to pass through a gantlet of protesters here in Rio de Janeiro this month on their way to their luxurious training camp in the mountains above the city. The chant of the striking teachers who led the protest: “An educator is worth more than Neymar.”
“That talk about the national team being the patrimony of Brazil, the affirmation of our identity and civility and cordiality, no one swallows that anymore,” said Arnaldo Bloch, a columnist for the newspaper O Globo.
Despite the tension surrounding the Cup, many Brazilians point out that the country has a tradition of warmly receiving foreign visitors, while pulling together at the last minute complex events like the Pan American Games n 2007 or last year’s World Youth Day, an international conference of Catholic youth that featured a visit by Pope Francis.
If Brazil starts winning, some contend that optimism will surge around the first World Cup in the country since 1950, and easily exceed the low expectations. “People are worried about how much has been spent,” said José Evaraldo Bezerra, 48, a doorman at a residential building in Brasília. “But once we see the first game, the parties will start.”
Still, ire about Brazil’s handling of the tournament remains widespread over the estimated $11 billion cost of hosting the tournament, including subsidized loans for stadiums in cities like Brasília, the capital; Cuiabá, a remote agribusiness center; and Manaus, an industrial hub deep in the Amazon, with paltry soccer fan bases.
More than 100,000 people celebrated in Manaus when it was chosen as a host city, but that sentiment has shifted.
“Why does a city like Manaus need an expensive and luxurious stadium when a few meters away there’s a neighborhood, Alvorada, without sidewalks and treated sewage?” asked Milton Hatoum, a writer from Manaus.
The animus over the Cup is compounded by dismay over the delays and rising costs of the 2016 Summer Olympics, which Rio will also host.
“The diffuse messages which came together are that Brazilians want public services as good as the stadiums FIFA got for the World Cup,” said Jerry Dávila, a professor of Brazilian history at the University of Illinois.