BOSTON, Massachusetts — In 2007, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) confirmed that it would hold the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Soccer is one of the world’s most popular sports, with 3.5 billion people following along in 2017. As a cultural zeitgeist, soccer is part of many countries’ national identities, including Argentina, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Brazil. The sport is so popularized as it represents a person’s ability for social mobility, expression and community identity. This is the case especially in Brazil, as it is the country’s most-played sport and holds a societal function.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Sarah, a Brazilian-American woman who spent most of her childhood living in Brazil, speaks about her experiences with poverty in the country, along with her first-hand accounts of the impact of the 2014 World Cup and her opinions of major events occurring in places with economic challenges.
Brazil and the Importance of Soccer
When FIFA announced the 2014 World Cup taking place in Brazil, Sarah explained that it was an honor. “In Brazil, soccer is like football here,” she says, “but better.” She explained that it is “some people’s reason to live,” something she emphasized was not an exaggeration. Growing up, soccer was a major social factor in Sarah’s life. Everyone she knew played and everyone watched it.
Referred to as “the country of football,” Brazil’s national identity is rooted in soccer. Over 700 professional clubs exist in the country, children learn to play at a young age and it could be a way to get out of poverty for many.
Poverty in Brazil
Brazil has seen many economic crises, more recently one starting in 2014, which the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated. During the pandemic, the country suffered, as the World Bank writes, its “worst economic downturn in history.” The pandemic caused a recession and increased vulnerabilities in the job market. Despite the fact the country has been improving economically in recent years, the impacts of COVID-19 still exist. In 2021, the unemployment rate returned to how it was before the pandemic.
In 2023, UNICEF projected that 32 million Brazilian children lived in poverty in a study that examined income and food rates up until 2021.
Sarah is from Minas Gerais, a state in southeastern Brazil famous for its minerals and mines. Her family has been living in a rural town for as long as she knows, running a farm that includes livestock and agriculture. Agriculture is the largest source of employment for the state, with cattle pastures taking up most of the land. In March 2020, Minas Gerais saw an unemployment rate of 11.5%.
Living conditions are generally better in the urban parts of the state, where health services are more accessible. And despite Minas Gerais being one of the leading states in education, Sarah tells me how it was living in a rural area. She says that people in poverty there “have the bare minimum,” which is mostly provided through government programs. The school she went to was older and run-down and she says that compared to other schools, the state of hers was worse. Community is important, she says, as “everyone knows each other, so when someone needs help, we get together to help.” Sarah knows of cases of forced labor and people who have gone without electricity or running water and described what favelas are.
Favela often exists in urban areas, where a high-density population of lower-class workers lives. People build homes on top of one another, usually on the edge of cities. The origins come from communities of slaves in the 19th century, and the living conditions are unimaginable. Waste disposal is hazardous, there is overcrowding and poor nutrition is common.
Sarah explained that these communities live in a cycle of poverty, with many relying on crime or illicit substances to provide for their families. Gang violence is prominent and although violence does exist outside of cities, Sarah explains that rural areas were safer. “At least then you can have chickens,” she says, “where people in the city have it worse because they can not grow their food.”
When asked about her experience of poverty in Brazil compared to America, she explains that Brazil had fewer resources available, including education and health care. “In Brazil,” she said solemnly, “people have to work until they die.”
The World Cup’s Economic Impact
The hype for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil did not end with excitement for the sport, but also for the economic opportunities. Sarah remembers that because the World Cup “attracted a lot of tourists, I just know it brought everything [the economy]up.” She remembers the influx of merchandise, that stores sold more and that maintenance jobs became available. The Brazilian government invested $15 billion in the games, and expected a final gain of five times that investment, along with the creation of millions of jobs.
This was just hopeful speculation, as the World Cup’s impact on the economy was “very low.” And there was a lot of pushback from many Brazilians. Although it was exciting for many, the World Cup’s expenses angered many citizens, causing protests that argued the government should have spent money elsewhere.
In a 2014 survey, 61% of Brazilian adults were against the country’s hosting. Another thing was the actual impact the event had on employment. As Sarah explained, the unemployment rate did go down, from 7.2% in 2013 to 6.8% in 2014, but the following year the number increased by 2.5%.
After the World Cup ended, Sarah explains, the economic crisis continued. She says that there was a sense of “dealing” with problems again, that there was still political disruption, hunger and unemployment. Now the maintenance workers and builders were out of jobs and the infrastructure built had no purpose. The Mane Garrincha Stadium, which cost almost $1 billion to build, is now used as a bus depot. Sarah explains that the largest disappointment was, though, the upcoming Olympics in 2016.
The 2016 Rio Olympics
When asked if the 2014 World Cup harmed Brazil, Sarah says: “I feel as though the Olympics had a larger impact.” She brought up the two-year period the country had to prepare so soon after the World Cup, saying that the investing cycle repeated. “The country threw in a lot more money,” she said, “to have one after another made it worse”.
Like the World Cup, people expected the 2016 Summer Olympic Games to elevate Brazil economically, but once again it brought nothing but disappointment. More buildings that were made only for the events were left to rot, racking up bills rather than putting more money into the economy. The Olympic Park was left to Brazil’s Ministry of Sport to financially support, costing them millions of dollars to keep in maintenance. Even the Organizing Committee owed $40 million to creditors years after the games ended, asking the International Olympic Committee for help. The Rio Olympics also impacted communities. Street robberies went up 48% within the next year, and in 2017 violent crime also went up 26%. Many public service workers, like doctors, police and teachers were not getting wages. Favelas fell into even harder times.
Promises of modernization and legacy were washed away. In 2021, the Brazilian government attempted to revisit the “legacy projects” that the Olympics started. A year later, the country finally began to transform abandoned sporting venues into schools.
Remembering the Consequences
As exciting as these sporting events are, it is important to remember the consequences they may have on hosting countries. Even for Brazil, whose economy is one of the world’s largest, the World Cup and 2016 Olympics only heightened their economic crisis, plunging those in poverty even deeper.
– Audrey Gaines