What’s more dangerous to someone in power than losing a war? A soccer defeat. Now, to say that war has an effect on the political status of a nation or a group of peoples is extremely obvious. The Russo-Japanese War defeat helped topple the Romanov dynasty, a series of lost wars paved way for the discontent that fueled the French Revolution, and quite recently, losing in Afghanistan served as a catalyst that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Losing conflicts that mostly rely on national unity and pride causes disgruntled citizens to oftentimes take out their anger on those in power. This can be especially devastating if the loss of a war is coupled with already existing socio-economic discontent. As Christopher Bassford puts it: “War means social disruption and the breaking of moral bonds. It breeds hatred, bitterness, and more war.” So it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that football (and yes, for the remainder of this article I will refer to it as such) has this power. To borrow an example from this World Cup, the success of the Colombian team motivated Colombians to roll out to vote en masse and helped ensure Santos’ re-election, while Argentina’s loss in the final led to riots and violent demonstrations.
So what would be a better case study than Brazil itself? After all, Brazil not only hosted the World Cup, but also lost against Germany 7-1 and came in fourth after losing to the Netherlands 3-0. They were poised as one of the favorites to win, and yet their loss has had many impacts on different spheres of influence. From a personal standpoint, I agree with Betty Liu, who says: “The reason sports is so powerful is because in a span of a few hours, we experience all the emotions we do in our so-called ‘real lives’. We experience joy, loss, victory, boredom, frustration, anger, annoyance, patriotism and everything in between”. The problem is that these feelings can translate into voting patterns. According to a study by Australia National University’s Michael Miller, “Happy people are more likely vote for incumbents because they feel good about the way things are. When your sports team wins, you’re happier. The reverse is true when your team loses”. Naturally, one would not be too worried just about these voting patterns if a game was the only thing negatively affecting voters. But President Dilma Roussef appears to have backtracked on her predecessor Lula da Silva’s performance, losing points in her approval ratings.
Ever since Brazil was tapped to host the World Cup, Dilma’s government has taken some less-than-orthodox steps in preparation. For example, on the construction of the many stadiums, renowned Brazilian politics commentator Claudio Goncalves Couto states: “It was a good idea to renovate the stadiums in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, or to build a new stadium in Sao Paulo and to renew Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Those were all good choices. But in the case of Manaus, Cuiaba and Brasilia it seems excessive to the necessities of those cities. Now that the world cup is over, I’m sure that the discussion about these stadiums will flare up again”. In fact, the construction of these stadiums carried many problems, including forced relocation of citizens and indigenous tribes, spent money going to the construction of stadiums instead of being used for hospital or homes, among other issues. In addition, while the construction was reported to cost over $1.2 billion, much of that money has been alleged to have been taken by corrupt officials. Couple this social discontent with the misuse of funds, and it comes as no surprise that Dilma’s popularity had gone from 55 percent to 48 percent in February.
Perhaps there won’t be any major political fallout caused by the team’s defeat. Maybe the construction of the stadiums might have an effect, but the performance of a team couldn’t possibly hurt a political leader. Or could it? Though the correlation between a team’s success and voting patterns was already explained, there is an even deeper impact, at least in the case of Brazil. “If the same defeat had come just four years ago, when Brazil’s economy was growing by more than 7 percent, the situation would probably be far different,” states political commentator Antônio Sampaio. A few years ago, Lula da Silva helped bring thousands of Brazilians into the middle-class, created links with other world leaders, and set Brazil up as one of the most important economies to pay attention to, leaving office with an 83 percent approval rating. However, the team paralleled the country. Neymar, the team’s star player, was the one who, arguably, carried the team as far as they did; but after losing him, the team was crushed by Germany and the Netherlands. Much like Brazil relied solely on the World Cup, the team’s dependence on Neymar caused the team to falter, bringing riots when the problems resurfaced. Coach Luis Felipe Scolari was let go after the team’s disastrous result, and though Dilma is still seen as the favorite for the upcoming elections, she might not necessarily win outright in the first round.
In fact, Neymar and Pelé put it best. The injured striker explained: “We didn’t play the kind of football that the Brazilian national team plays. It was just regular, and that’s why we still reached the semifinals, but it wasn’t Brazilian football, not the kind of football that enchants everybody”. Brazil has to admit that, just like the team was known for its “Jogo Bonito,” or “Beautiful Game,” the country has fallen out of the things that initially made it rise and stand out. So how to go about and fix this? Pelé thinks that “…maybe it [the defeat] will serve to force big changes in Brazilian soccer, both on and off the pitch, from junior levels and up. There needs to be a change in the way of thinking, and to lessen the promiscuous exchanges of favors, a national disease, that riddles the country”. Football can be used to bring pride to a nation. But when a malady is festering within the country, it can shine through national icons too. It’s time, then, for both the team and the government to wake up and bring us the “Jogo Bonito” we love and admire.
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