News & Politics

10 Surprising Facts About Brazil On the Eve of the World Cup

From a twice-divorced socialist for president, to fecal matter floating at popular beaches, all is not as it seems.

Photo Credit: ostill / Shutterstock.com

Preparing for the World Cup is not all fun and games for Brazil. In this messy emerging economy, this nascent democracy, the opulence of the Cup contrasts the gaps in infrastructure, security and accountability. Arguments with the Swiss Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) have, at times, challenged Brazil’s sense of national sovereignty. Meanwhile, foreigners are paying closer attention to Brazil. And we’re learning that much of what we thought we knew about the country was wrong.

1. Brazil is really, really big. It’s larger than the continental United States, though much of that is sparsely populated rainforest. Soccer matches will be played in 12 host cities across the country. If you wanted to visit each city by plane, you’d have to fly over 5,000 miles. That’s like traveling from New York City to Miami, and then to Anchorage. Team USA will play its first game against Ghana in the coastal city of Natal, and then travel 2,500 miles to play their second game against Portugal in Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon.

2. Brazil is ethnically very diverse. The city of São Paulo is home to the largest community of ethnic Japanese outside of Japan. Brazil has 10 million citizens of Lebanese descent; three times the population of Lebanon itself. If you consider indigenous tribes, there are literally thousand of minority groups across the country. With population of over 200 million, those groups are minorities. But no racial group in Brazil comprises more than 50 percent of the population; it’s already a majority-minority country, as the US is projected to become in 2050.

3. President Dilma Rousseff is a twice-divorced socialist. She’s also an ex-guerrilla who survived torture. She spent three years in prison during the military dictatorship. For the first 22 days in jail, she resisted torture by beating and electric shock without giving up her companions. After gaining her freedom, she earned a degree in economics. She’s an accomplished economist whose pragmatism and experience earned her a place in Lula’s government as Energy Minister and later as his Chief of Staff. Like Lula, she’s proved to be a pragmatist, though she’s put forward some truly progressive legislation, such as a recent net neutrality law protecting citizens' rights to privacy and competitive Internet offerings.

4. Soccer stadiums will cost Brazil $3.47 billion. That’s more than three times the $1.1 billion South Africa spent on stadiums for the 2010 World Cup. Most stadiums are over budget, and some may never be used again. The stadium Manaus ran $67 million over budget. Its local soccer team is likely to attract less than 5 percent of the stadium’s 42,000 person seating capacity. Outside the stadiums, the costs are almost incalculable. At least $10 million was invested in infrastructure to handle the tourism surge performed more poorly than expected. Of the 13 airports slated for renovations, only two will be ready in time for the World Cup. Meanwhile, Rio de Janeiro announced a hike in public transportation fares, despite massive protests sparked by a similar announcement last year. More protests are planned, with the rallying cry “If there’s not going to be rights, there’s not going to be a Cup.

5. FIFA made Brazil change its laws in order to host the World Cup. Many of Brazil’s progressive federal laws clash with the moneymaking mechanisms of FIFA, the World Cup’s official organizer. (Based in Switzerland, the “nonprofit organization” operates on a budget of $800 million. According to the Guardian, FIFA’s 23 executives earn an average of $1.2 million per year.) FIFA demanded exemptions from federal laws, culminating in the General Law of the Cup, passed by the Brazilian legislature and signed by the president. The law granted a free pass to FIFA, exempting it from payroll taxes, visa requirements. To appease Budweiser, FIFA’s booze-sponsor, alcohol was allowed in stadiums (it’s normally banned, to reduce violence). Brazil’s elected officials didn’t capitulate on every single demand, and the Supreme Court scrutinized the General Law. Still, many citizens felt that FIFA had dictated terms after awarding the cup.

6. “Terrorism” and “gang activity” laws threaten Brazilian activists. Perhaps most troubling, Brazil’s government has embraced laws establishing vaguely defined crimes such as “gang activity” and “terrorism.” Human rights groups fear the laws will be used to suppress the protests that flourished in June 2013; Brazil’s answer to the Arab Spring. According to a press release by Amnesty International: "The rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly are under threat in Brazil....New draconian 'anti-terror' laws currently before parliament signal the government’s intent to crush any peaceful protests in the country."

7. Rio’s seawater is literally full of shit. With fecal content rate more than 70 times the legal limit, the girl from Ipanema might think twice about dipping her toes into Rio de Janeiro's water. While few soccer players will use the water in 2014, sailors from around the globe hope it can get cleaned up for the 2016 Olympics. "We have had a couple of incidents where people went in the water and came up with red dots on their body,” said Olympian Allan Nørregaard, in an interview with the AP. “I don't know what's in the water, but it's definitely not healthy." So what is in the water? Dead horses. Sewage. Runoff from a giant landfill. Rio’s topography doesn’t help. The city’s hills form a bowl, a mountainous drainage that funnels effluent and open sewers into the bay. Guanabara itself forms a lekythos, a broad bay 16 miles in diameter with a narrow one-mile-wide entrance connecting it to the ocean. The resulting bottleneck could explain why pollution isn’t diffused easily by seawater. City officials have promised to reduce pollution by 80 percent before the Olympics. Until then, sailors might want to hold their noses and cover their skin.

8. Only 48 percent of Brazilians still favor hosting the World Cup, down from 79 percent in 2008.Could it be the corruption? The loss of liberties? The ceaseless and fruitless federal spending? Yes. But there’s another reason: Brazilians can’t get tickets. Of Brazil’s 200 million citizens, a very unscientific guess is that 199,999,999 want to see a World Cup game live. Unfortunately there are only 3.3 million available in total. Tickets for the final start at $440, and run up to $990. FIFA ties some tickets to travel packages. Many tickets have been scooped up by scalpers, foreigners and VIPs. Not only are Brazilians paying a high tab in advance, they’re not even invited to the party.

9. Soccer players enter politics when they leave the pitch.Many ex-soccer stars currently serve as legislators on the national and state levels. If you ever followed the Brazilian national team you might have heard of Rómario, Delei or Marquez. They’re all politicians now. Some soccer players such as Ronaldo are mulling a run in the next elections. Then there’s soccer legend Pelé, who once served as the Minister of Sports. He helped create a law to protect athletes in the workplace. He resigned in 2001. (More on Pelé in #9.) However, just because politicians were once soccer players doesn’t mean that they blindly back the World Cup. Rómario, a congressman, has had repeated public spats with Pelé about issues surrounding the World Cup (here’s one example [translation by Attanasio]).

10. Pelé is a money-hungry conservative and a shill for Brazil's Big Ag. Arguably history’s greatest attacking midfielder on the soccer pitch, Pelé is a right-winger in the arena of politics. Unlike his colleagues (see #9), Pelé never ran for office. He focuses on commercial interests, appearing in ads for Subway sandwiches, shampoo, Viagra... even diamonds made from his own hair. But that hasn’t stopped him from stumping for a conservative agenda. He currently represents the National Agriculture Confederation (CNA), an agribusiness lobby. In a 2013 ad campaign, Pelé presented the CNA as patriotic, domestically focused and pro-environment. In reality, CNA was formed to support deregulation and exports. When Brazil passed a forestry law in 2012 the CNA lobbied hard to give amnesty to loggers who had destroyed protected rainforest. In fairness to Pelé, he’s known for plying his trade as a spokesman for many philanthropic causes such as pediatric health, and served as a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. His popularity plunged last year, however, when he took to YouTube to shoo protesters off the streets. His comments showed ignorance of the protester’s concerns — including price hikes on public transport, widespread corruption, healthcare woes and high spending on soccer stadiums — and led to him being mocked on social media and called a traitor. “Pelé missed a great opportunity to express himself in the language of change,” wrote blogger Josias de Souza [translation by Attanasio].

Bonus: Brazilians are getting pretty fat. Boasting appearances in 32 Miss Universe pageants and 20 World Cups, Brazil has a stereotype for having active and attractive citizens. However, as food has become more plentiful and more processed, the Brazilian waistline has waxed. Over half the population of Brazil is overweight, according to a 2013 government study cited by O Globo. One in five Brazilians is now obese, up from a mere 4 percent in 1990. It’s a far cry from American obesity (30 percent), but it has led to serious costs in pediatric care and cultural shifts, such as inauguration of the Miss Brazil Plus Size beauty pageant.

Cedar Attanasio is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo. Follow him on Twitter: @cedarattanasio

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