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A Joyless Brazil Prepares for the World Cup’s Opening Kickoff

Strikes, construction delays and social woes overshadow soccer’s big tournament, but a glimmer of hope sprouts amid the gloom.

There are virtually no national flags and little festive bunting on display. Few locals seem enthused enough to put on the jersey of the Seleção, as the national soccer team is known. Smiles are deployed parsimoniously. Welcome to São Paulo, where the World Cup begins this afternoon.

Brazilians are a famously fatalistic lot, and the notion of the “zica,” or jinx — which locals cite whenever they want to keep silent on a topic of potential benefit to them — runs deep throughout the country. But when it comes to the World Cup, it seems as if the residents of Brazil’s largest, most prosperous city have embraced the idea of the zica with such fervor that all talk of the tournament has been outlawed.

Sure, the Copa is big news in the press, but the coverage is overwhelmingly negative. Folha de S.Paulo led on Wednesday with a tart report of President Dilma Rousseff’s attack on the “pessimists” and “naysayers” who said Brazil would not be ready for the tournament. The story appeared next to a photo splash showing construction workers still applying the finishing touches to the city’s Itaquerao Stadium, which will host the opening game between Brazil and Croatia later today in a state of what can best be described as semipreparedness. The stadium has never been match tested at close to full capacity.

But it’s not the sight of workers digging holes and continuing work on basic stadium amenities like access stairways and toilets that’s most striking about the lead-up to today’s curtain raiser. Construction delays and faulty infrastructure have been the country’s staple pre–World Cup diet for months now. What’s really jarring is the almost total lack of collective enthusiasm among the locals.

Take to the streets under the famously gray skies of this teeming, endless city, and you’ll see plenty of people, but none of them seem in any way excited by the approaching carnival of futebol in this, the sport’s most successful nation. When the Selecão, five-time winners of the World Cup, arrived in São Paulo late Tuesday, just 500 people showed up to cheer them on. “Copa? Who cares?” shrugs one man at the counter in a popular lanchonete, or snack bar, close to downtown.

“Even by Brazilian standards of apathy, things are very quiet,” says Thomas Kamm, a São Paulo–based partner at Brunswick Group, an advisory firm. “Normally by this stage you’d see more of a buildup in excitement on the streets.”

The distinct lack of World Cup fever might have something to do with the overwhelmingly negative sentiment throughout this conservative, pro-business city toward Rousseff, who has staked her hopes of re-election in October’s presidential poll on a successful staging of the tournament. “People are afraid to display too much patriotic pride because the World Cup is already so politically charged,” explains one junior local partner at a global management consulting firm. “If you put a Brazilian flag on your car, you never know what might happen.”

But the anger toward the government and its trophy tournament comes from both directions: from the largely white business elite, who despair at the government’s fiscal laxity in the face of quickening inflation, and from the poor, largely black lower classes in the sprawling suburbs to the city’s west and north, who decry the extravagance of World Cup spending in a country whose hospitals and schools require urgent attention. Neither group wants to support the World Cup because that would mean lending credence to the government.

Despite a Metro strike, temporarily suspended but due to resume once the matches get under way, things are working in São Paulo better than many had expected. The traffic is horrendous, but it’s horrendous in a routine way: Cars never move quickly in São Paulo. Many had feared a repeat of the wave of mass protests that brought millions onto Brazilian streets around the Confederations Cup in June 2013, but so far things have been relatively calm.

This might have something to do with what Olivier Colas, a French national who has been living in Brazil since 1988 and is the senior vice president at Kepler Weber, Brazil’s largest silo and grain storage firm, describes as the “peculiarity” of Brazil’s two-year cycle. “Everything is good for two years, and everyone is very optimistic about the future, and then the optimism evaporates and everyone becomes angry and pessimistic,” he explains. With growth stalled for much of the past 18 months, the fiscal deficit worsening and inflation creeping up past the 6 percent mark, there is much cause for pessimism. But the pessimistic agonies of 2013 appear to be running their course, and there is a cautious optimism that with the effects of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s taper now dissipating in financial markets and with elections ahead, the nation’s psychological state might be headed for sunnier days.

There’s another reason why the protesters might be staying home: Experience has taught them to expect little from the government, even in the face of massive social disruption. “Nothing much happened after the protests” of 2013, says Kamm. “Rousseff made some vague noises about ‘listening to the people,’ and then people just went back to living life the way they had before.” The enthusiasm for mass social demonstrations, even among the hard-core “Black Blocs” of disaffected lower-middle-class 20-somethings who were at the vanguard of last year’s unrest, appears to have waned as quickly as it flared — for now, at least.

Rousseff herself will have more reason to cheer on her country than most. Even though the immediate effects on financial markets might be short-lived, winning the World Cup can have a galvanizing effect on a dispirited nation. When France — the negative, overintellectualizing country to beat all negative, overintellectualizing countries — won the World Cup in 1998, for instance, l’effet Coupe du Monde lasted for months, with the team’s multiethnic character inspiring a fresh appreciation for France’s black-blanc-beur identity and ushering in a period of decisiveness and productivity in the country’s politics.

But few here think the prospect of Brazil’s winning the tournament — a distinct possibility, given recent form — will have much of a lasting impact on the popularity of the Rousseff government. The feel-good factor will last “a few weeks at most,” argues Colas. “Life will go back to normal and people will see that nothing has changed.”

Nothing changes, there is no excitement, nobody smiles: As the Selecão prepares to take on Croatia and mount a bid for an unprecedented sixth World Cup, the gloom throughout Brazil is as heavy as the skies of São Paulo, the tournament itself figuring less as a showcase for “sun, samba and soccer” than as some kind of exercise in peculiarly Brazilian despair.

Follow Aaron Timms on Twitter at @aarontimms.

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