What's Less Popular in Brazil: World Cup or President?

Raul Gallegos is a Bloomberg View contributor, who covers Latin American politics, business and finance. He was a columnist for Reuters and a correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. He grew up in El Salvador and is based in Colombia.
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You know there's a problem when Dilma Rousseff, the president of perhaps the most soccer-crazed nation on Earth, has to resort to a public-relations campaign to sell Brazil on the benefits of hosting the FIFA World Cup this year.

It's a telling response to a stunning turn of events: Since June, when thousands of middle-class Brazilians hit the streets to protest shoddy public services and overspending on soccer stadiums, the World Cup has gone from a source of pride to a political liability. The video "No, I Am Not Going to the World Cup" by Carla Dauden became the rallying cry of many angry Brazilians. So many Brazilians made such a stink that FIFA President Sepp Blatter in July wondered "whether we made the wrong decision awarding the hosting rights" to Brazil.

The real problem for Rousseff is that she is seeking re-election in October. A poor showing as a World Cup host just months before the vote could deal a blow to her bid. No wonder Rousseff is so eager to persuade Brazilians to smile for the cameras.

Daily newspaper O Estado do S. Paulo quoted an unnamed Rousseff administration official last week as saying that the campaign to generate support for the World Cup is designed to prevent people from "getting carried away by the madness." The madness in question refers to a campaign titled "Nao Vai Ter Copa" ("There Isn't Going to Be a Cup") that has grown popular on social media. Last month, Rousseff's Worker's Party created the hashtag #VaiTerCopa ("There's Going to Be a Cup") on Twitter in response.

That Rousseff is in full campaign mode is undeniable. She attended the World Economic Forum at Davos last month for the first time in an effort to win over investors amid Brazil's recent lackluster economic performance. The political timing of the PR campaign is so obvious that Rudolf Kunz, a columnist for O Estado do S. Paulo, in a column on Saturday said that Rousseff's decision to name a new communications minister was an attempt "to face with more vigor negative news and more carefully guard the party's interests."

Global soccer star Pele also came to the World Cup's defense last month when he begged protesters "not to spoil the party."

"I hope people have good sense: Allow the World Cup to go on," he argued. "Then we can make up for what politicians are stealing or diverting. That is a separate problem. Soccer only brings foreign exchange and benefits for Brazil."

Brazil has bigger problems than protesters outside the stadiums where the games will be played. As of early January, six out of 12 World Cup stadiums still weren't ready. Recent protests suggest that security measures may not be enough for the event. And Brazil's airlines and airports lack the capacity to handle demand from soccer fans flying back and forth between cities.

The reality is Rousseff's administration is far less popular than the global soccer tournament. A survey by Brazil's Datafolha published in October showed that 63 percent of Brazilians support the World Cup. Those are better numbers than Rousseff's approval rating of about 41 percent as of November, according to a separate Datafolha survey.

On Monday, Jose Americo Dias, a spokesman for the Worker's Party, spun Brazilians' dissatisfaction with Rousseff. Brazilians are fed up with politicians in general, he said. "If the Cup has any political significance this year, it won't be against Dilma but in favor," he added. "That is because we have the conviction that the competition will be an absolute success."

Whether Brazilians' anger and frustration with Rousseff's administration is justified is a matter to be settled at the polls. But the president's troubles aside, Brazil's long-term brand is the far more important issue. Brazilians concerned about that image, and their own economic fortunes, should hope all goes well with the World Cup.

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter @raulgallegos.)

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net