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Will the World Cup Actually Help Brazil to Solve Its Problems?

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program
June 14, 2014


World Cup controversies in Brazil are supposed to be about team selection and tactics, but this year they've focused on much bigger issues: jobs, poverty, public services, and corruption. Past tournaments have been a boon for governments hoping to distract their people -- and the world -- from exactly these kinds of issues. Could this one be different?

Major sporting events in Latin America have a history of both illuminating and eliding larger homegrown problems. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was preceded by massive protests and the ignominious slaughter of hundreds of students in the capital's downtown, revealing the ugly authoritarian side of the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) regime. And the 1994 World Cup hadn't even finished when Andrés Escobar, having scored an own goal in a match against the United States during Colombia's brief campaign, was murdered upon his return to Medellín, then the world's cocaine capital.

In contrast, during the 1978 World Cup, Argentine cheers at the famous River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires drowned out the screams of tortured political prisoners just down the road at the infamous Naval Mechanics School. The home team won the championship, and the country's military leaders lasted until 1982, when defeat in combat by Britain in the Falklands (Malvinas) War eroded whatever backing they had gained through sporting victory. Haiti's brutal dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier had hoped for similar results in the previous World Cup; he was so obsessed with sporting success that he arranged for the last qualifying rounds of the 1974 tournament to be played at home, where Trinidad and Tobago mysteriously had four goals disallowed in their decisive loss to his squad.

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