The other day, as she was priming her re-election campaign, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hit a speed bump. There she was, racing across the country to launch shiny public-works projects ahead of the World Cup, and the only thing those annoying journalists wanted to know was if the airports would be renovated on time and up to "FIFA standards."
The reference, of course, was to the rigorous Switzerland-based global soccer authority. "The airports will not be FIFA-standard," she shot back. "They will be Brazil-standard airports." And there it was, in a sound bite, the official spin on Brazil's complicated moment in the sun, a candid take on the rolling public-relations disaster that has been this country's relationship with the wider world and its international gatekeepers.
Rousseff's prickly riposte might have been calculated. With presidential elections scheduled for October, she has been struggling in the polls. Hardly a week passes without some angry klatsch or another taking the streets - not least because of Brasilia's perceived weak hand in dealing with those overweening bean counters from Zurich. A mini-genre of anti-FIFA articles has bloomed here and abroad. It's about time the Brazilians kicked back, she said.
It's an odd moment to circle the wagons. Brazil is days away from the curtain call for the crown event of the most popular sport on the planet. Two years from now, Rio de Janeiro will stage the Summer Olympics, drawing hundreds of thousands of athletes and tourists, plus billions of television viewers. And yet nationalism and resentment have flared, and with them memories of times that Brazilians had imagined were behind them. "FIFA go home," says a message stenciled in white on the pavement of Copacabana, Rio's signature beachfront neighborhood.
Squint a little and you can see the faded graffiti of another cranky time, some three decades ago, when international creditors were banging on Brazil's door for their due and the International Monetary Fund was their policeman. FIFA Go Home! is the direct heir to IMF Go Home! This is passing strange. Brazil, with the world's seventh-largest economy, traffics in a globalized world and its signifiers and acronyms, from the Gini coefficient, which measures economic inequality, to the International Organization for Standardization, which sets proprietary, industrial and commercial standards. When the country excels, Brasilia trumpets the achievement.
The nation's traditionally skewed income inequality score has improved since the beginning of the last decade, even as most fast-growing developing nations become more lopsided. When the country flops, such as in the PISA - the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's yardstick for 15-year-olds, measured by standardized scholastic tests (Brazil is a lowly 58th on a scale of 65 nations) - the official handlers rush to print disclaimers. Then there's the mother of all acronyms, the WTO. Not only does a Brazilian, Roberto Azevedo, head the World Trade Organization, few countries have been as aggressive as his in wielding its authority, taking protectionists to task 26 times since 1995.
That's one of the big reasons that Brazilians revere soccer. Roberto DaMatta, the brilliant anthropologist, nailed it when he said that futebol isn't some opiate for the witless. Brazilians love the game because it is fair, has transparent rules and is played on a level playing field. What counts on the pitch is how you play, not who you know. It's a scale model of a better world. The current World Cup anger notwithstanding, Brazilians have always been proud of their FIFA standing (currently fourth), and they will remind visitors that they got there the proper way: by beating the best.
More than an ankle kick at Brazil's intrusive outsiders, Rousseff's FIFA outburst was essentially the declaration of an era. To her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil was destined for glory. He pushed for a seat on the United Nations Security Council and a nuclear energy deal with Iran. He opened 40 new embassies abroad. Bagging the World Cup was part of the package. Brazil "will now with great pride do its homework," he promised the FIFA brass in Zurich. That was then.
Margolis is Brazil bureau chief for Vocativ. He has reported on Latin America for Newsweek and was a frequent contributor to The Economist, The Washington Post and Foreign Policy.