Is Brazil ready for the limelight?

Organizing the 2014 World Cup is assured to generate massive amounts of publicity for the South American nation. In fact, it already has. But amid the preparations, the country has already discovered that the limelight can be a double-edged sword.

“This should be Brazil’s moment of glory,” says Lourdes Casanova, a senior lecturer of management at Cornell University’s Johnson School and co-author of the recently published The Political Economy of an Emerging Global Power: In Search of the Brazil Dream. “It has an opportunity to show there is more to it than samba, carnival, and beaches. In the past, countries like China, Japan, and Korea have used events like these as a way to tell the world, ‘Here we are, we are one of you. A developed country with the infrastructure that comes with it.’”

But with massive construction delays in the run-up to the event, that message seems to sound increasingly hollow. Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported recently that less than one month before kick-off, the majority of the intended projects were unfinished. Time overruns have affected airport transportation systems, fast bus lanes, and no less than three stadium projects.

Part of the challenge is the sheer scale of the event. The World Cup is hosted by 12 cities that spread out over an area that is roughly the size of the United States. By contrast, the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, arguably an even bigger event, is organized in just one location.

“The idea behind the World Cup was to let the whole country share in it, while providing an opportunity to improve its infrastructure across the board,” says Casanova. “In retrospect, I think that might have been a mistake.”

From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, the Brazilian government was so immersed in paying off its foreign debt that it barely invested in infrastructure, says Casanova. “That deficit cannot be solved in less than 10 years.”

Deadline pressure increases the risk of construction companies cutting corners, leading to unsafe and inhumane working conditions. “With mega events like these, there is always a chance that people end up in forced labor and slave-like conditions,” says Beate Andrees, head of the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour at the International Labour Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations.

For instance, in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, almost 1,000 people have died in construction related-accidents since January 2012. The Qatari government has since indicated it will improve the living standards of its migrant workers, but the reputation damage (and loss of life) has been done.

In Brazil so far, there have been eight World Cup-related deaths. But compared to Qatar, the government has been much more responsive in addressing the problem, says Andrees, who just returned from a monitoring visit to the country. “Its inspection programs have identified the issue and prevented it from becoming a major disaster.”

Additionally, the Brazilian government has compiled a so-called ‘dirty list’ that publicly identifies companies using slave labor. Employers on the list will be banned from government contracts.

A group of 400 private companies have committed to boycott such “dirty companies” as part of a pact against the use of slave labor, says Andrees. “It’s a very effective system that shows the seriousness of the Brazilian government…. It could serve as a model for neighboring countries, such as Peru and Paraguay.”

The government’s best intentions have not been enough to sway the Brazilian people, though. The run up to the World Cup has been bogged down by massive street protests against corruption, the poor quality of public services, and the unequal distribution of profits. In an interview with German magazine Sport Bild, Brazilian football legend Pele has called the preparations “a disgrace,” blaming “the evil people who have stolen all the money.”

The public backlash has rained on Brazil’s $14 billion parade even before it has started, says Cornell’s Casanova. “If Brazil has one common religion, it is soccer. Yet the latest surveys show that more than half of the population is against the World Cup. The consensus is broken.”

The street protests are especially challenging for Brazil’s ambitions to present itself as an alternative model for economic growth, says Casanova. “Brazil has a system of state capitalism, something in between China and the United States, where the central government has intervened in a number of ways to make society more equal. It has worked for years, but now even the elites are complaining about corruption and inequality.

Controversy aside, the event is certainly not doomed to fail, says Gustavo Koniszczer, managing director at branding firm FutureBrand, which compiles a Country Brand Index. “Yes, the Brazilian government should do a better job explaining the benefits, and yes, under these circumstances that is not going to be easy. But at least people are talking, which is a good starting point for correcting misconceptions and changing the narrative. It’s much harder to address the problem if nobody pays attention.”

From an international point of view, Brazil is already enjoying some of the positive effects of organizing the World Cup, says Koniszczer. In the 2013 Latin American version of the Country Brand Index, Brazil ranks first, after Argentina and Costa Rica. The impact will only increase as the country prepares for the Olympics. “It pretty much guarantees that Brazil will be on everybody’s mind until the end of 2016.”

Such massive publicity will particularly benefit tourism, says Casanova, who is originally from Barcelona, host of the 1992 Olympics. “That event changed the image of my country completely. Before the games, Spain still had trouble profiling itself as a vacation spot. Now, it is one of the top destinations in the world.”