If histrionic warnings about impending catastrophe at the 2014 World Cup sound familiar, that’s because prophecies of doom on (and off) the pitch surface every four years. Search for the words “World Cup” and “disaster,” and 46 million entries pop up. Replace the year and dateline—to 2010 and South Africa, for instance—and prepare for déjà vu. Even the headlines look the same: unfinished stadiums, unruly protests, unready teams, fixed games, runaway public costs, concerns about crime and sex trafficking.
And yet the last World Cup ultimately proved, on balance, to be a glitch-free and inspiring affair. When the competition was over, political leaders across the spectrum credited the event as a nation-building exercise that had stitched South Africans together across racial and class lines.
This time around, however, the upheaval surrounding the World Cup could have a far more profound impact on the host of the games. Back when South Africa was wrapping up its tournament, officials at FIFA, the world soccer federation, had high hopes for this year’s contest. Brazil had hosted its first World Cup back in 1950, after all, and its national team had won the games five times since then. The country was already an emerging power with one of the world’s largest economies. Its population, four times larger than South Africa’s, is one of the most soccer-obsessed on the planet. (Ask a child on the street in Rio de Janeiro to explain the Maracanaço—the national team’s crushing loss to Uruguay when Brazil last hosted the Cup, 64 years ago—and you’ll receive an earful about the wounds inflicted by that blow to national pride and his certainty that the country will redeem itself in 2014.)
But the mass anti-government protests that erupted in Brazil last year have stung the nation’s leaders and stunned FIFA officials. The World Cup is getting underway at a time when the country’s long economic boom has given way to a skid, fueling demonstrations against government corruption and shoddy public services. Protest organizers have managed to shift the country’s political discourse, while demanding that the $11 billion-plus budgeted for the games be spent instead on the nation’s highly stressed schools, infrastructure, and health-care systems. In a country where a majority of the populace now opposes the government’s decision to host the competition, a chant has emerged among demonstrators: “There will be no World Cup!” There will be, of course, but Brazilian politics may emerge from it transformed.
A decade ago, when I was a journalist working in South Africa, there were plenty of misgivings about holding the World Cup in the country, given its HIV/AIDS epidemic, persistent poverty, and high rates of unemployment and violent crime. But the critics were largely drowned out through a well-orchestrated campaign by business, labor, pop-culture, and even religious leaders—and spearheaded by then-President Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. At his inauguration in 1994, Mandela had expressed hope that South Africa would shed its reputation as “the skunk of the world.” For him, the World Cup represented another step in his quest to dignify the country’s international reputation.
On the day in May 2004 when FIFA designated the host for the 2010 World Cup, massive screens were set up in parks and plazas across the country so people could watch the announcement live. I drove south from my house in Johannesburg to Soweto, and wedged myself between children, grannies, and workers on a patch of grass at Mofolo Cultural Bowl, an outdoor performance space. The crowd whooped and cheered at the sight of Mandela arriving at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, and positively exploded when FIFA President Sepp Blatter awarded the games to South Africa—in a roar that seemed to me equal parts triumph and relief.
Doubts about the decision soon cropped up, though, as officials repeatedly missed deadlines to refurbish and build stadiums. Turmoil within the governing African National Congress led to President Mbeki’s resignation and replacement by Jacob Zuma in 2009. Protests erupted over the government’s failure to deliver water, housing, and electricity, while strikes produced violent confrontations between police and low-paid security guards hired to protect fans in the soccer stadiums. Mandela’s victory in securing the World Cup, it seemed, could turn into a global humiliation.
Once the games began, however, the power of spectacle took over. Besides strikes by security guards, there were few logistical hiccups. Even when the South African team was knocked out of competition early, fans simply shifted their loyalties, in pan-African solidarity, to Ghana. Public schools were let out for the duration of the games, college dormitories were turned over for the use of athletes, and a sense of collective mission prevailed.
This surge of good feeling stemmed from massive public spending on roads, airports, and stadiums in the years leading up to the Cup, which created many construction jobs and helped shield the South African economy from the post-2008 global recession. But the good will also had psychological roots: predicted catastrophe had been averted. Much like the period after Mandela’s election in 1994, the country was in the midst of a cross-racial swoon. South Africa is a sports-crazed society where athletics, like everything else, has always reflected racial divides (cricket was traditionally for English-speaking whites; rugby for Afrikaans-speaking whites and coloureds; soccer for blacks). “The games created a sense that we have gotten over the hill” of racial divisions, the premier of KwaZulu Natal province, Zweli Mkhize, told me at the time. “There’s a huge degree of mutual acceptance, a sense of unity, a very strong sense of national pride.”