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This mural of a starving child with nothing to eat, but a football, was painted by street artist, Paul Ito, on the side of a school building in San Paulo. (Courtesy: Paulo Ito, Flickr.com)

It is the only country that has qualified for the final rounds of every Soccer World Cup tournament since its inception in 1930. Having qualified every time, it has dribbled its way into the maximum number of finals and gone on to win the cup a record five times. Soccer and Brazil are so inextricably entwined that it is impossible to mention one without referring to the other.

This week the 2014 Fifa World Cup kicks off in Brazil. Brazil won the chance to host the tournament despite a high crime rate and poor infrastructure facilities.

A write-up on the Brazil World Cup isn’t complete without a background about this remarkable nation.

With 200 million people, Brazil is the largest Latin American country, in terms of landmass and population. In the past two decades it has proved to be one of the most successful economies in the world. Rich in minerals (iron ore, petroleum), it’s fields bursting with soya and wheat, coffee and rubber, Brazil has in the past two decades seen an economic boom that rivals only China’s.

Industrial growth has not been far behind. Brazil is among the world’s top five steel and automobile manufacturers and boasts the world’s third largest aircraft company after Boeing and Airbus – Embraer. Achieving a numero-troi status in aerospace requires a very advanced manufacturing culture. I can vouch for that. I regularly inspect Brazilian-made jet engine parts and I can tell you I have not often seen quality standards that high. In 2010, Brazil overtook the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy.

Like most of the countries in the region, Brazil was ruled by military dictatorships for most of the 20th century. But while the rest, like the Argentinians, the Paraguayans and the Chilleans stamped out dissent brutally, the Brazilian military was different. Their dictators were clever about violence.They tortured but did not kill. Instead, they turned dissenters loose after they had had a taste of the jail cells, so they could tell the others what happens to cribbers. It was an effective way to keep citizens in line.

While the Chilean Military dictatorship under Auguste Pinnochet went berserk, killing and maiming and the Argentinian Military dictatorship lost all credibility after losing the 1982 Falkland War, the Brazilian generals planned a gradual transfer to civilian rule. Through the 80s, catching the pulse of changing times, they promoted conservative, pro-military politicians who took power gradually through a period of political and economic turmoil. The nation stabilized through the 1990s and an ex-College professor by the name of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, called just ‘Lula’ by his countrymen, took over as President in 2002. Brazil entered for the first time, a period of stability and economic growth, though it did not benefit the folks it was supposed to.

Lula was a leftist with ideas (and rose-tinted specs). He started a cash disbursement scheme known as the ‘Bolsa familia’ which distributed cash to low income families with children, with the proviso that the kids must have a consistent school attendance of 90%+ and an upto-date vaccination record, for their parents to be eligible for the disbursement.

‘Bolsa familia’ turned out to be an incredibly popular program among the poor. Why wouldn’t it be, when raw cash was being distributed, to the wretched? The scheme was meant to put cash into the hands of the poor who would begin purchasing manufactured goods and in turn, help the local industry and employment to grow, much like the welfare schemes in Canada and Sweden and other developed nations.

A very noble intention indeed, except for one tiny problem. In Canada and Sweden, the welfare schemes work and while there are always some bad apples, folk have a sense of pride and actively try to get out of welfare and into the workforce. In Brazil, it has helped to create 40 million lazy, beer guzzling couch potatoes with no intentions of going to work and no ambitions of making it big. Getting certificates of school attendance and vaccination from corrupt officials turned out to be a piece of cake.

When he left in 2011 after serving two terms, Lula handed the baton to his Chief-of-Staff, Dilma Rousseff, who is the current Brazilian President.

In return for opening up Brazil to foreign direct investment, the OECD, an international club of the world’s 34 richest nations, became a huge Lula fan. It paid so-called analysts to claim that, between 1997 and 2011, income inequality in Brazil has fallen by over 12% and that it is currently at its lowest level since data became available in 1960. If the OECD can be believed, this is an impressive achievement, since everywhere else in the world, the income disparity has only widened.

In the OECD publication, most of the reduction in inequality has resulted from income gains of Brazil’s poorest. Cash is cash, to the OECD, be it welfare cheques or income earned through toil. The numbers of the desperately poor, who earn less than USD 2/day, have dropped from 23.2% of the population in 2002 to 5.9% in 2012, as per the OECD.

The situation on the ground however is vastly different from the OECD’s colorful pie-charts. Brazil remains a land of desperately poor people living in crime-ridden shanty towns and hovels, in the midst of excruciating joblessness, institutionalized corruption, gang violence and police brutality. The disparity between the OECD’s fantasy and the reality is so stark that one has to wonder what kind of orangutans work in that organisation. Or maybe it is the OECD’s intention to praise you into the stratosphere before walking in and taking over your industry through FDIs.

Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, a chip of the old block, had meant to use the hosting of the World Cup to show the world that Brazil had finally arrived. She had in fact seemed destined for that glory. It was almost a given that the land of carnivals and samba would be throwing it’s best party ever.  But that was four years ago. Instead, violent protests have erupted over the hosting of the tournament.

Since the military has stepped back and human rights in the internet age has become infinitely more verifiable, the hoi-polloi seem to have finally found a voice. They see the expenditures on the World Cup as unnecessary, arguing that Brazil has more important issues at hand than wasting scant resources on building stadiums which will remain largely empty once the tournament is over.

I can’t argue with that. In any case, international competitions in any sport nowadays are nothing more than self-enrichment vehicles for a few. Revelations of corruption and nepotism among the officials who govern these quasi-governmental national sports associations, are now a rule rather than the exception, a recent case in point being the methods that Qatar used to win the hosting of the 2018 Soccer World Cup, through large scale bribery of FIFA office bearers.

I suppose there are Sharad Pawars, Suresh Kalmadis and Narayanaswami Srinivasans in every sports-playing nation in the world. In fact, looking at Brazil, I can’t help thinking of India’s 2010 Commonwealth Shames (oops, I had meant to say ‘Games’) when rascals in khadi looted India.

There are however two differences between us in 2010 and the Brazilians in 2014. First, the Brazilians are venting their anger unreservedly. They are not standing mute and helpless.

The second difference really defines Brazil apart from India – it produces world class sportsmen, not duds.