Brazil wins on the soccer field, but can protesters win on the streets?

Brazil overtook Spain to win the Confederations Cup – the primer for the World Cup – while protests heated up outside the Maracanã stadium.

Alexandre Loureiro/FIFA/Reuters
Brazil's Neymar (c.) celebrates with teammates as they hold the trophy after defeating Spain in their Confederations Cup final soccer match at the Estadio Maracana in Rio de Janeiro in this June 30.

Madness reigned in Brazil on Sunday – both the good kind and the bad. The national soccer team claimed victory over Spain to win the Confederations Cup for the third time in a row, an important feat in the leadup to the World Cup, which will also be held here. But euphoric cheers inside the venue were countered by several thousand protesters just outside the stadium walls.

Police fought running battles with demonstrators angry not just at the money being spent on organizing the two soccer competitions, but at the corruption and mismanagement they say blight Brazil and its political system. The country has been racked in recent weeks by demonstrations on a range of issues including corruption, megaevent spending, and public services.

Outside, protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the largest police presence ever at a sporting event in Brazil. Inside, 70,000 people were delirious with joy.

Brazil’s 3-0 win bodes well for the five-time world champion as the team attempts to win the biggest prize in soccer on home soil next year. But now that Brazilians have shown they can do the business on the field, defeating the world and European champions, the big question is what will happen off it.

Political analysts say Sunday’s result will provide little succor to the country’s politicians, almost all of whom have seen their popularity ratings plummet in recent days. President Dilma Rousseff saw her popularity rating fall over the weekend from 57 to 30 points, a record decline. The mayors and governors of both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo saw similar falls.

The protests have diminished in size compared to two weeks ago, but that is more a result of fatigue than a placating effect of sporting triumph, says Rafael Cortez, a political consultant at the Tendencias agency and a keen soccer fan.

“The protests will tend to diminish over time because it is hard to maintain and keep people mobilized,” Mr. Cortez says. “What will happen is that they will get smaller and focus on more specific issues.”

In the longer term, however, next year’s World Cup could serve as a renewed rallying point for those angry at the 3.5 billion dollars being spent on stadiums and the failure of several big cities to build the monorails, bus lanes, and subway lines they promised would be ready in time for the competition.

“I think the worry is that the World Cup is so grandiose and so symbolic that people will see it as a bargaining tool,” Cortez says. “The World Cup attracts opposition and that can bring people together.”

President Rousseff is not a soccer fan, and the 70,000 fans booing her and FIFA President Sepp Blatter at the opening Confederations Cup match two weeks ago likely didn’t help win her over. Rousseff was noticeably absent from yesterday’s final, though she did send the team her congratulations.

Rousseff has sought to temper the public’s anger with a five-point package of reforms aimed at changing the political system and boosting investment in public services such as education, health, and transportation.

But it is too early to say if her strategy will pay off.

Sporting glory will no doubt cheer up Brazilians, as the euphoric mood around the country today has already shown. But as coaches love to say, teams are only as good as their last win.

As the feel-good factor fades, goals and trophies may not be enough to keep protesters at home.

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