Can Brazil get over the World Cup?

Brazilians had mixed feelings about the World Cup even before their team's humiliation in the semi-final match against Germany. Now they're left to dwell on what's been spent on the competition and what they got out of it -- a pretty dismal return on investment.

By: Date: July 17, 2014 Topic: Global economy and trade

This article was first published in BloombergView.

Brazilians had mixed feelings about the World Cup even before their team’s humiliation in the semi-final match against Germany. Now they’re left to dwell on what’s been spent on the competition and what they got out of it — a pretty dismal return on investment.

While Brazil is chewing that over, the country will be hosting the sixth summit of the BRICS nations this week. Maybe greeting delegations from Russia, India, China and South Africa to discuss the future of the world’s major emerging economies will be a welcome distraction. There’s real work to be done at this gathering, so it might let Brazil’s government look a bit more purposeful than it has lately. Then again, it might rub salt in the wounds.

Let’s talk about the soccer atrocity first. You’d struggle to exaggerate the disappointment Brazilians feel right now. I saw the fans’ delight on Copacabana after their team beat Colombia, and heard their joyful chanting at matches where Brazil wasn’t even playing. Other things might let them down, but they could take pride in their football. Then I saw that pride collapse after the game against Germany. It was heart-breaking.

Brazil has a bit of growing up to do when it comes to soccer. It no longer has players of the caliber of its wonder years from the 1960s to the early 1980s. For years, its national teams have been successful, but not as dominant as they once were. In that sense, the expectations had gotten out of hand and the country was riding for a fall. A bit more realism and the sense that football’s just a game wouldn’t go amiss. Perhaps that kind of maturity is what we’re seeing in Brazil right now, despite the dismay. Life goes on. That, at least, is what I keep telling myself as a fan of Manchester United.

It’s worth remembering that Brazil isn’t the first country — and it won’t be the last — to spend money on a big sporting event that would have been better spent on other things. The same was true for South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, and probably for both Japan and South Korea for the 2002 World Cup. (In 2006, Germany already had most of what it needed to host the competition.)

Or think of the Olympics, where wasted spending on a vast scale is almost mandatory. Rio hosts the Olympics in 2016, so its planners might have learned a thing or two lately.

Although it’s right for Brazilians to protest about the excessive cost — and a welcome expression of democratic expectations, by the way — the country shouldn’t beat itself up too much over its outlays for the World Cup. Much less should it be criticized by foreigners who’ve made the same mistake.

Meanwhile Brazil’s economy isn’t exactly thriving. The past few years have been a letdown. My earlier prediction of 5 percent growth over the course of this decade is almost certainly going to be proved wrong. The end of the commodity-driven boom years hasn’t been easy.

Again, though, one needs to keep a sense of perspective. Brazil only appeared to have grown so strongly in the previous decade because of the soaring value of its currency and rising commodity prices. These translated into a very fast increases in dollar-denominated output and spending. Real gross domestic product growth was less than 4 percent a year over the decade. Moreover, as disappointing as this decade’s growth of roughly 2 percent a year has been, outright Brazilian-style crises are a distant memory.

Analysts who write about the country’s high and rising inflation — currently running about 6 percent — forget that prices sometimes rose 6 percent each month in the 1970s and 1980s. The currency lost value so rapidly it had to be repeatedly scrapped and replaced. Those days are over.

Certainly the government has to get out of the way, and stop “doing a China” by trying to direct so much of the economy itself. (Even China is no longer doing a China.) Brazil needs to be more competitive and more inventive; it needs its private enterprises to invest more in creating wealth and boosting productivity.

In this, the BRICS summit could play a small yet useful role. Brazil could push to shape the much-discussed BRICS Development Bank in the right way. Where will it be based? How exactly will it be capitalized? What big projects might it help to advance? Maybe some funding for the Rio Olympics?

As the inventor of the acronym, I have a stake in the BRICS. I want to see them succeed, and I’m sure they can. For all sorts of reasons, now would be a great time for the B in the BRICS to make some decisions and silence the doubters.

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