After the world cup

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 24, 2014


Every four years, the world takes a pause as 32 countries compete to become the world champion of the most popular sport on the planet. Though it seems that the only thing that matters is football, the World Cup only temporarily diverts attention from pressing social, economic and political issues. When it’s over on July 13, reality will kick back in and the one-month break people gave their national governments will end.


South America is probably the world’s most football-obsessed region in the world. The World Cup being played in Brazil has captured the undivided attention of the six South American countries competing — Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay. The slowdown of the economy in most of the region, ongoing political and social tensions, and unmet social needs have been relegated to a second place since the World Cup began on June 12.


Now that more than half of the games have already been played and several teams are being sent home, the World Cup will become more intense for the few countries that remain in play. For the rest of the world, life will soon return to normality.


With the unique exception of Colombia, where a presidential election runoff was held a couple of days after the first game played by its national team, politics seems to have stopped in most of Latin America. The news media has given first priority to World Cup coverage. Problems and ongoing developments in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq have been relegated to a few seconds in most television news programmes.


Even national economic and financial issues have received far less coverage because of the tournament. Governments are taking advantage of the fact that people’s attention lies elsewhere to make unpopular announcements or to adopt unpopular reforms. Under normal circumstances, unpopular decisions are made when other news can partially distract attention. When the World Cup is being played, attention is elsewhere for a much longer period of time.


South American teams have done exceptionally well in the World Cup. Out of the 12 games played by the six countries from the region, there have been nine victories and only two defeats. Argentina, Chile and Colombia have already advanced to the next round. Brazil have also advanced and Uruguay and Ecuador have decent chances of also making it to the next round.


Though things will definitely get tougher as the tournament progresses, South American teams have shown their might in the first World Cup held in the region in 36 years.


Many things have changed in South America since the last World Cup was played in Argentina in 1978.

Today, all countries participating in the tournament are ruled by democratic leaders. The economy has been expanding everywhere for most of the past decade. Millions of South Americans have joined the ranks of the middle class.


The fact that all the South American teams have played in stadiums filled with fans from the respective countries is a testimony to the growing middle class. Dozens of thousands of fans have travelled via air and land from Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina to root for their national teams in Brazil.


If 36 years ago the region was an embarrassment in terms of democratic rule and poverty alleviation, it’s now enjoying a period of democratic prosperity.


There are, however, other things that have not changed enough. Corruption remains rampant in many countries — including the host nation Brazil. Social spending in education, health and infrastructure is insufficient.


In Brazil, social protests before and during the World Cup have reminded the rest of the world that the government has failed to meet the expectations of a population that wants to enjoy football without sacrificing the provision of basic services.


The protests against the Brazilian government demand better government social services were also relegated to a second place after the tournament began. Though incumbent President Dilma Rousseff accepted, in the middle of the World Cup, her party’s nomination for re-election for the presidential contest to be held in October, most Brazilians will play little attention to the election race until after the final match.


The famous Roman phrase “bread and circuses” aptly describes the approach taken by many governments toward the World Cup. Given the way their teams have played, South American countries have had a good deal of circuses. Governments must be understandably pleased.

Yet, despite the attention-grabbing tournament, other social issues have not gone away. Moreover, they will return with renewed strength after the most important sporting event in the world ends. When the circuses end, governments will be hard-pressed again to provide bread.


Concerns over the slowing economy, weak job creation, rising prices and insufficient social spending will once again dominate the agenda and put pressure on governments. Though governments are still enjoying the break, soon presidents and their cabinets will be facing harsher realities.


No doubt, some will be wishing that the World Cup, the circuses, lasted a bit longer.