Every four years, Brazilians wrap themselves in their cheerful green, yellow, and blue flag emblazoned with the Portuguese words “ordem e progresso.” The slogan, which translates as “order and progress,” stretches across a puddle of stars.
It’s not just the people, although plenty of folks do coat their arms in green and yellow paint and wear colorful wigs. When my stint as a foreign correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro coincided with the 1994 World Cup, I found the school buses and bakeries sporting the national colors — along with a scrawny dyed-green dog — unforgettably charming.
Less than 10 years after the country officially exited a protracted and initially brutal dictatorship, this kind of nationalism cropped up in no other context. Brazilians got about as patriotic on September 7, their Independence Day, as most Americans do on Memorial Day.
Upon discovering that I came from the United States, Brazilians would harp about my country having the privilege of hosting the 1994 Cup. After all, most Brazilians treat soccer as a national religion while many U.S. sports fans ignore it altogether.
The country is hosting the games this year for the first time since 1950. Despite all that longing for this honor I encountered 20 years ago when Romario, Bebeto, and the rest of Brazil’s stellar national team nailed their fourth Cup victory, it’s not a completely joyful occasion.
Tickets, priced at hundreds, and even thousands of dollars a pop, are out of reach for nearly all fans as their country vies for an unprecedented sixth win. That seeds resentment, as does the way thousands of Brazilians were forced to relinquish their homes to make way for Cup-related construction.
Back to Brazil’s flag: The word “order” conveys a dark meaning today in a country with intractable police brutality. Following a year of protests and campaigns that wrongly declared “there won’t be a cup,” the government is deploying phalanxes of heavily armored forces clad in creepy uniforms and spending nearly $1 billion on security to keep the games on track.
The protests are still flaring on a small scale, but most of the locals are watching the games instead of taking to the streets — even if their rooting isn’t reaching its normal throttle. An epic mid-day traffic jam caused by workers clocking out early, for example, trapped soccer legend Pelé in his car in São Paulo for the first half of the scoreless Mexico-Brazil match.
Except when gridlock sets in, roads stand empty across the country during Brazil’s games because no one wants to miss a moment of the action.
The “progress” Brazil’s flag boasts rings more true than it used to, especially in terms of economic justice. The economy is ascendant following nearly a dozen years of Workers’ Party leadership, first under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and now President Dilma Rousseff.
Growth has slowed lately but GDP now tops $2.3 trillion, up from about $550 billion when Lula (Brazilians refer to many presidents and soccer stars by their first name or nickname) took office for the first time, in 2003. Per-capita income, meanwhile, has more than tripled to $11,340.
And inequality is declining sharply, thanks partly to a higher minimum wage and innovative government policies that target the poorest of the poor. Some 28 million people in Brazil, about 15 percent of the total population, climbed out of poverty during Lula’s administration alone.
The grumbling and protests over the World Cup’s more than $11 billion price tag is taking a bite out of Dilma’s already tenuous popularity as she campaigns for reelection in October. But just as most Brazilians decided they might as well enjoy the World Cup despite all the downsides, they don’t seem inclined to dump their president.
For all the World Cup kerfuffles, Dilma remains the clear frontrunner. Current projections point to her pulling off a strong plurality in a first round election in a crowded field, and beating any of her leading opponents in a runoff election.
I can’t tell you who will win this year’s World Cup. But it looks like order and progress will propel Dilma to a second term, giving the Workers’ Party four more years to transition Brazil to a much more level playing field.