Brazil Has A Lot Riding On Its World Cup Team's Outcome

Brazil is the spiritual home of soccer and a world powerhouse in the sport. It's woven into the Brazilian psyche. Wins and losses have had repercussions in other realms — including politics.

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We're about to hear why sports is not always just a game. Brazil is the spiritual home of soccer, and this summer, the country's hosting soccer's biggest tournament. So, what happens if Brazil loses? Here's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Imagine the moment: the crowds are cheering, the stadium - soccer's most iconic, the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro - is packed. The world is watching on flickering screens everywhere. It's the final, when all of the money, all of the hard work is finally going to pay off for Brazil - except it doesn't. Brazil doesn't win the World Cup. Stay with me. There's a reason for this thought experiment, because history.

MARCELO BARRETO: In 1950, when Brazil lost the World Cup, that was a real tragedy. Some very serious sociologists believed that was the defining moment of Brazilian society.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Marcelo Barreto, one of the main sportscasters on SporTV in Brazil. The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup was in 1950, and it lost to Uruguay in the same stadium, the Maracana.

BARRETO: We didn't have a defining war. We didn't have a defining crisis, but we have a defining football loss. So, they believe that was a very important moment for Brazilian society.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To understand how important, you only have to go to Sao Paolo's football museum.

PELE: Welcome to the football museum.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Walk past famous Brazilian footballer Pele greeting you on a giant screen, and you come to a darkened room, where the moment of that national tragedy, as it's known here, is played out on a loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To the sound of a beating heart, the narrator tells the story of the 1950 defeat to images from the game: 1-0 to Brazil. The cup is ours, he says, 1-1, the cup is still ours, 2-1 to Uruguay. Brazil's heart stops beating. But that isn't the only World Cup defeat that has had repercussions here. Fast forward to many years later. It's 1998, and after being favorites, Brazil again loses the World Cup in Paris. A stunned Brazil cannot believe it. Speculation runs rife that the team were bought off by Nike, who had big sponsorship deals with many of the players. Congress actually launches an inquiry into the sponsorship deal and many other questions surrounding the final.

MAURICIO SAVARESE: We actually had Coach Zagallo go into Congress in Brasilia, Ronaldo go into Congress, and having to explain very bizarre things, such as: Weren't you supposed to mark Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup final? Why didn't you play? Were you paid not to play?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mauricio Savarese is a journalist and author here in Brazil.

SAVARESE: That shows a bit on how politics and football are well entwined in Brazil, in a way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which brings us to today. There has already been loads of controversy surrounding the World Cup in Brazil. Protests broke out last summer, in part over the massive spending that has taken place on white elephant stadiums instead of on health and education. The previous government of Ignacio Lula da Silva bid on the games as a way to bring Brazil the recognition he felt it deserved on the world stage. And his heir, Dilma Rousseff, is up for reelection right after the World Cup finishes. A successful World Cup result - so the thinking goes - will fill the country with national pride and give her a boost. But if Brazil loses...

FLAVIO DOS CAMPOS: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think a defeat of the Brazilian team will throw gasoline on the fire, says Flavio dos Campos, a professor at the University of Sao Paolo, who is an expert on football and politics in Brazil. He says it will be very unfavorable to the government. He predicts Dilma Rousseff - who now has a comfortable lead over her opponents in the polls - will have to go to a second round in the elections and will struggle to win the presidency. Other analysts have said if Brazil doesn't even get into the final, it could fuel the protests that are already expected around the event. So, a lot is riding on how well Brazil's team actually does. SporTV's Marcelo Barreto says, though, that the worries are overblown.

BARRETO: If it happens - I hope it doesn't - but if it happens, it's going to be a football loss. It's going to last a week, a month. I don't know. Life goes on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But his daughter, 11-year-old Nina Barreto, interrupts his father, and strenuously disagrees.

NINA BARRETO: People would be, like, going crazy on their heads and throwing their TVs out of the window and screaming and rolling and grabbing the footballers and throwing them out. How did you do that? Why?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barreto laughs and says that's the voice of the younger generation. I disagree. He shrugs and says: But she may be right. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paolo.

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