Rio de Janeiro: For Brazil, it was the upside-down World Cup. Brazilians lost at what they were certain they would win - soccer - and won where so many expected failure - organization.
For years, the country's government has endured grueling criticism from FIFA over severely delayed stadiums. Leaders rode out a wave of protests last year over billions spent on the tournament despite poor public services.
Brazil during the game against Mexico. Pic/ AFP
Foreign tabloids warned fans of man-eating snakes and violence, while domestic newspapers grilled officials over every imaginable aspect of Cup preparations. Many serious doubts remain: about corruption related to World Cup works; whether the country will see economic benefits from hosting the games; and whether dozens of infrastructure projects promised as the biggest legacy of the event will ever be completed.
But there is no question that the goal of giving the world a smoothly run, exuberant sporting spectacle surpassed all expectations. "I think it's been awesome," said Scott Zapczysky, a 39-year-old jiu jitsu instructor from Michigan, as he took in the final match at the Fan Fest on Copacabana beach Sunday night. "I thought it was going to be an enormous disaster, to be honest. But it looks good. I think people are really happy." Brazilians would disagree with him on one point: They were crushed by their team's historic 7-1 loss in the semifinals, followed by a 3-0 drubbing in the consolation game. Still, President Dilma Rousseff took clear delight in the Cup's success, and in handing her critics a plate of humble pie.
Speaking to a group of foreign journalists on the eve of the tournament's close, she said she had never seen an event that faced such intense scrutiny. "Well," she said, "we've eliminated the doubts of all who didn't believe in us."
Rousseff also said the success of the Cup gives the country confidence in its ability to pull off its next mega-event, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. For Eliane Cantanhede, a Brazilian political commentator known for penetratingly humorous observations in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, the event "truly surprised everybody."
"The whole world thought the Cup would be full of problems -- and it was a success," she said. "And everybody thought that Brazil's team would win the Cup -- and it was a disaster. It was a double surprise!"
Cantanhede noted that Brazil under Rousseff has been less assertive in world affairs than it was under former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who used his natural showmanship to project an image of Brazil as a confident, on-the-rise nation. "But with the Cup, Brazil has recuperated quite a bit of its positive image," Cantanhede said. "The world has seen beautiful stadiums and cities, airports that worked well and the warmth of the Brazilian people."
Brazil was helped by foreign fans arriving with a spirit of adventure. Nobody expected to see the sort of comforts or precise organization seen at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. And to be sure, there were problems. Traffic jams plagued cities like Rio and Sao Paulo each time a match was played. Airports, while efficient in moving hundreds of thousands of fans around 12 host cities, lacked the creature comforts Europeans or North Americans are used to. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing and muggings were often a complaint.
But there were no mass protests like those witnessed during last year's Confederations Cup, the World Cup's warm-up soccer tournament. Strikes by public transport workers and police that many feared would hurt the event were resolved in the days before the tournament began. The stadiums held up well despite some concerns about their structural safety. What's left now is for Brazilians themselves to decide if the USD 13.5 billion spent in preparations was worth it.
"I'm still upset. There was so much spending to build world-class stadiums while our hospitals and schools remain a mess," said Laeste de Santana, a 50-year-old barber in Rio. "These problems won't go away because of the Cup. These are things that we Brazilians still have to live with once the tournament is over." But Rio taxi driver Paulo Oliveira saw the Cup in a more positive light.
"It was a beautiful event. We showed the world the true Brazilian tradition of opening our arms open wide for foreign visitors and embracing them with our joy and warmth," he said.
"Our country has really advanced in the last 10 years. We've still got a lot of problems, of course, primarily with infrastructure and poverty, and visitors saw that. But in my cab, at least, during the past month all I saw were gringos with smiling faces."