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Why Brazil's Olympic Gold Could Boost Its New President

If history is any guide, Brazil’s Olympic gold may be remembered as a turning point in the crisis.
Brazil
The Brazil squad celebrates its 1994 World Cup victory over Italy


The year was 1994, and a depressed Brazil was desperately in need of a lift. Recent years had seen a president impeached for corruption, inflation in excess of 2,500 percent, horrendous massacres of innocents inside a prison and outside a church, and a general feeling the country couldn’t do anything right. As June approached, so did two seemingly unrelated events that looked destined to add to this record of failure – the launch of a new currency, and the soccer World Cup.

Brazil hadn’t won a Cup for 24 years – an almost unprecedented stretch that had many questioning whether its magical jogo bonito had vanished, perhaps forever. As for the currency, there had already been five new ones introduced in the previous decade to try to “reset” the economy, with equally miserable results. There was no reason to believe this time would be any different.

Yet as the tournament got underway in the United States, an unexpected momentum began to take hold. In group play, Brazil easily dispatched decent teams from Cameroon and Russia by a combined 5-0 score. The country’s politicians sensed opportunity. The author of the new currency plan, a heretofore obscure sociologist named Fernando Henrique Cardoso, believed that if Brazil did well in the Cup, the national malaise might ease just a bit. So he began inviting journalists to take pictures of him cheering on the team, hoping that the euphoria would rub off on the currency, known as the real, when it launched on July 1 – just as the World Cup’s elimination round got underway.  

“Was it a slightly hammy bit of political theater? Of course,” Cardoso later admitted in his memoirs. “A well-placed penalty kick was not going to magically end inflation. But there was something to be said about the mood of the country and how that might impact the real.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Brazil defeated the host team in a hard-fought 1-0 victory before a crowd that included a somewhat conflicted Pelé, who was torn between the two nations he called home. Wins against the Netherlands and Sweden followed. Finally, on July 17, Brazil played Italy to a scoreless draw before then winning the tournament in a penalty shootout, 3-2. The nation erupted in a frenzy of celebration, and a prominent columnist wrote of “a new phase in Brazil’s history: the return of national self-esteem.” “The best in soccer can also win the battle against misery and backwardness,” crowed another. Coincidence or not, the new currency began to work as planned, and inflation slowed to just 2 percent in the month of July. By October, Cardoso had been elected president, where he would serve two largely successful terms. The real remains Brazil’s currency today.

I couldn’t stop thinking of all this on Saturday afternoon, as Brazilian soccer and politics once again converged in the most amazing way. By beating Germany in another dramatic shootout, Brazil won Olympic soccer gold for the first time ever, providing a depressed nation with its most joyous collective moment in years. In doing so, the team exorcised some of the demons from its 7-1 loss to the Germans at the 2014 World Cup – which, let’s say it again, “coincidence or not,” marked the beginning of the country’s descent into two long years of humiliation, scandal and recession. Saturday’s win also consolidated a nationwide belief that, against all odds, the Rio Olympics had been a (moderate) success. But for the vast majority of Brazilians who either don’t live in Rio or couldn’t care less about wrestling or competitive swimming, the soccer victory was probably even more of a boost to morale.

As if on cue, pundits emerged to draw larger parallels to the nation’s fate. “I think the cloud that was hovering over Brazil is starting to dissipate,” Guga Chacra, a popular television commentator, wrote on Facebook shortly after Saturday’s final whistle blew. “All of us, deep down, know this.” A look at the calendar shows that the president who led Brazil into this awful recession, Dilma Rousseff, is likely to be definitively removed from office next week. There are tentative signs the economy is starting to turn around. In other words, there’s a good chance those clouds are, indeed, starting to part.    

Lots of countries love soccer, but it’s safe to say that Brazil, with its unmatched five World Cup titles, is more obsessive than most. So is it healthy for politics to so closely track the national pastime? Does it give politicians the power to cynically manipulate the public mood, and paper over Brazil’s real problems? These questions have long been debated by journalists and athletes alike. Pelé complained in his memoirs that, at the 1966 World Cup, the Brazilian team suffered “tremendous pressure” from the newly installed military government to win a third consecutive championship to “cover up the divisions in our society.” Brazil lost that year, but won in glorious fashion in 1970, allowing the military to rally around the flag during a particularly nasty phase of the dictatorship when dissidents were being arrested, tortured and killed. (Rousseff, then a leftist guerrilla, was jailed that same year.)

Another convergence occurred in 1950, when Brazil hosted the World Cup for the first time. Organizers built the world’s biggest stadium, the Maracanã, then with a capacity of nearly 200,000, to show the world its people were not “savages,” to quote Rio’s mayor at the time. Brazil’s infamous 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the final not only deprived the politicians of their storybook ending, but devastated the nation’s self-esteem to the extent that legendary writer Nelson Rodrigues called it “our Hiroshima.” In ensuing years, Brazil would endure an economic crisis, a corruption scandal and the suicide of a beloved president. The national team wouldn’t enjoy a shining moment at the Maracanã until 66 years later, when Neymar fired home the final penalty kick against Germany on Saturday.      

It’s easy to imagine how “bread and circus” could once again be used to distract the masses. The dour public mood has been the oxygen that allowed the Lava Jato probe into corruption at Petrobras to keep burning over the past year. If people are happier, and take their angry gaze off of Brasília, it will become easier for Congress (and factions within the judiciary) to pass measures that would obstruct the work of investigators, and let part of the establishment off the hook. Meanwhile, if Rousseff is ousted as planned on August 31, her successor Michel Temer, who is almost as unpopular as she is, will work hard to draw a line under the misery of the past two years. Sure enough, in a newspaper editorial on Tuesday entitled “The World Rediscovers Brazil,” Temer congratulated the soccer team for “passing from discredit to the pinnacle, opening a road that Brazil should also follow in other fields.”

Will history repeat itself once again? I personally believe that Brazil has matured, and the lessons of this crisis won’t be easily forgotten. It’s also possible that another event – such as upcoming plea bargains in the Lava Jato case – could rekindle the public’s rage. But I also believe that nations have limits to their suffering, and will eventually grasp at opportunities to turn the page. Confidence and sentiment are critical to politics and to economies, and optimism often becomes self-fulfilling. Furthermore, I know that hacks like me are always looking for grand narratives about the fate of nations. And that’s why I would bet that Saturday’s victory, and the Olympics in general, will eventually be remembered by some as the beginning of the end of Brazil’s crisis. For better and for worse. Coincidence or not.

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Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. He was also the co-author of the two memoirs referenced above, by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Pelé

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Winter is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and the vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. A best-selling author, analyst and speaker, Brian has been living and breathing Latin American politics for the past 20 years.

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