As FIFA wraps up the qualifying stages for next year's 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the world's largest sporting event finds itself at the center of economic unrest in the usually soccer-mad country. The Confederations Cup, a precursor to the World Cup held in Brazil this month, was overshadowed by the protests of more than a million people who took to the streets of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other large cities.
A 20 cent hike in public transportation fares provided the spark. However, the outrage goes well beyond that. Brazilians are calling for improved public services, better security and the end of government corruption.
They are particularly critical of the billions in public financing being used to renovate and build stadiums for both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The protesters argue that a larger percentage of the country's budget should be spent on improving infrastructure, transportation, schools and hospitals.
Leaders of the mostly peaceful protest have called upon Brazilians to do something previously unimaginable: boycott World Cup games next year. Meanwhile, President Dilma Rousseff has proposed $25 billion in new spending on the country's infrastructure and met with some of the protest leaders about their concerns.
Even Pelé became a target. The Brazilian icon, still considered to be the greatest soccer player ever, called upon his countrymen to “forget all this commotion... all these protests, and let’s remember how the Brazilian squad is our country and our blood.”
The reaction was instantaneous and overwhelmingly negative on social media—from countrymen who were born years after the legendary goal scorer's career ended.
The Brazilian protests seem less of a backlash against soccer and more of an indictment of things that are ailing the nation. The uprising, comprised of mostly the young and middle class, parallels the "Occupy" movement in the United States, as well as the so-called "Arab Spring."
Meanwhile, stadium construction is behind schedule and will likely exceed the $3.3 billion budget. This comes amidst growing fear that some of the arenas will not be ready in time for the World Cup.
Further complicating matters are concerns that several stadiums are unlikely to be used often after the World Cup concludes. For instance, Brasilia’s 71,000-seat Estadio Nacional, the costliest stadium, does not have a team in one of the country's top-tier leagues.
Despite the turmoil, the International Olympic Committee maintains that the Olympics will bring significant benefits to the population of Rio, improving the city in terms of transport, infrastructure and social housing, as well as bringing a considerable sporting legacy to Brazil.
When it was awarded the World Cup and the Olympics, the world's most-watched sporting events, Brazil celebrated its symbolic ascension as a rising power on the global stage. Ironically, these events are now at the heart of an intense political debate about the country's future and its priorities.
While these two seminal sporting events will have a profound impact on Brazil's sports legacy, they also may provide the impetus for significant change in Brazilian society.