SÃO PAULO — It has long been a source of unparalleled pride, a common bond uniting a disparate nation, something Brazilians could always point to — even in times of economic ruin or authoritarian rule — that made them the best in the world.
But these days, Brazil, the most successful nation in World Cup history, home to legends like Pelé and Ronaldo, is finding little comfort in “the beautiful game.”
In the most unexpected of ways, Brazil’s obsession with soccer has become a potent symbol of what ails the country. Ever since protests began sweeping across Brazil this week, demonstrators have taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to vent their rage at political leaders of every stripe, at the reign of corruption, at the sorry state of public services.
Now, pointing to the billions of dollars spent on stadiums at the expense of basic needs, a growing number of protesters are telling fans around the globe to do what would once seem unthinkable — to boycott the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a sign of how thoroughly the country has been turned upside down, even some of the nation’s revered soccer heroes have become targets of rage for distancing themselves from the popular uprising.
“Pelé and Ronaldo are making money off the Cup with their advertising contracts, but what about the rest of the nation?” asked one protester, Gabriela Costa, 24, a university student.
Protesters lambasted both men after Pelé, whose full name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, called on Brazilians to “forget the protests” and a video circulated on social media showing Ronaldo, whose name is Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, now a television commentator and sports marketing strategist, contending that World Cups are accomplished “with stadiums, not hospitals.”
The fact that soccer officials even had to address the issue was a major embarrassment to Brazilian officials, who had fought so hard to land international events like the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in order to showcase what a stable, democratic power their nation had become.
“I love soccer,” said Arnaldo da Silva, 29, a supervisor at a telecommunications company, who celebrated back in 2007 when Brazil landed the World Cup but was also among the protesters in the streets this week, denouncing spending on stadiums when the infrastructure around those structures, like sidewalks, is crumbling. “It’s as if we’re divided between our heart and our head.”