Brazilians Hope Their Olympic Soccer Gold Marks A Turning Point for Their Nation

A supporter of Brazil displays a poster reading "Dilma Out," referencing Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup South American Qualifiers' match between Brazil and Uruguay, in Recife on March 25. Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty

The year was 1994, and a depressed Brazil was desperately in need of a lift. Recent years had seen a president impeached for corruption, inflation in excess of 2,500 percent, horrendous massacres of innocents inside a prison and outside a church, and a general feeling that the country couldn't do anything right. As June approached, so did two seemingly unrelated events that looked destined to add to this record of failure: the launch of a new currency and soccer's World Cup tournament.

Brazil hadn't won a World Cup for 24 years—an almost unprecedented stretch that had many questioning whether its magical jogo bonito (beautiful game) had vanished, perhaps forever. As for the currency, there had already been five new ones introduced in the previous decade to try to "reset" the economy, each with miserable results. There was no reason to believe this time would be any different.

Yet as the tournament got underway in the United States, Brazil easily dispatched decent teams from Cameroon and Russia. The country's politicians sensed opportunity. The author of the new currency plan, a theretofore obscure sociologist named Fernando Henrique Cardoso, believed that if Brazil did well in the World Cup, the national malaise might ease just a bit. So he began inviting journalists to take pictures of him cheering on the team, hoping that the euphoria would rub off on the currency, known as the real, when it launched on July 1—just as the World Cup's elimination round began.

"Was it a slightly hammy bit of political theater? Of course," Cardoso later admitted in his memoirs. "A well-placed penalty kick was not going to magically end inflation. But there was something to be said about the mood of the country and how that might impact the real."

It turns out he was right. Brazil defeated the host team in a hard-fought 1-0 victory before a crowd that included a somewhat conflicted Pelé, who was torn between the two nations he called home. Wins against the Netherlands and Sweden followed. Finally, on July 17, Brazil played Italy to a scoreless draw before winning the tournament in a penalty shootout, 3-2. The nation erupted in celebration, and a prominent columnist wrote of "a new phase in Brazil's history: the return of national self-esteem." "The best in soccer can also win the battle against misery and backwardness," crowed another. Coincidence or not, the new currency began to work as planned, and inflation slowed to just 2 percent that month. By October, Cardoso had been elected president. He served two largely successful terms, and the real remains Brazil's currency.

Brazilians celebrate in a street bar as they watch on television Brazil defeating Germany in the penalty shoot-out during the men's Gold Medal match between Brazil and Germany of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Soccer tournament, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 20. Barbara Walton/EPA

I couldn't stop thinking of all this on the final Saturday of the Rio Olympics, as Brazilian soccer and politics once again converged. By beating Germany in another dramatic shootout, Brazil won Olympic soccer gold for the first time, providing a depressed nation with its most joyous moment in years. In doing so, the team exorcised some of the demons from its 7-1 loss to the Germans at the 2014 World Cup—which, let's say it again, "coincidence or not," marked the beginning of the country's descent into two long years of humiliation, scandal and recession. Brazil's win also consolidated a nationwide belief that, against all odds, the Rio Olympics had been a (moderate) success. But for the vast majority of Brazilians, who either don't live in Rio or couldn't care less about wrestling or competitive swimming, the soccer victory was probably even more of a boost to morale.

Pundits drew larger parallels to the nation's fate. "I think the cloud that was hovering over Brazil is starting to dissipate," Guga Chacra, a popular television commentator, wrote on Facebook shortly after the match's final whistle blew. "All of us, deep down, know this." The president who led Brazil into this awful recession, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office at the end of August. There are tentative signs the economy is starting to turn around. In other words, there's a good chance the worst is over.

Lots of countries love soccer, but it's safe to say that Brazil, with its unmatched five World Cup titles, is more obsessive than most. So is it healthy for politics to so closely track the national pastime? Does it give politicians the power to cynically manipulate the public mood and paper over Brazil's real problems? Journalists and athletes alike have long debated these questions. Pelé complained in his memoir that at the 1966 World Cup, the Brazilian team suffered "tremendous pressure" from the newly installed military government to win a third consecutive championship to "cover up the divisions in our society." Brazil lost that year but won in glorious fashion in 1970, allowing the military to rally around the flag during a particularly nasty phase of the dictatorship, when dissidents were being arrested, tortured and killed. (Rousseff, then a leftist guerrilla, was jailed that same year.)

Another convergence occurred in 1950, when Brazil hosted the World Cup for the first time. Organizers built the world's biggest stadium, the Maracanã, then with a capacity of nearly 200,000, to show the world its people were not "savages," to quote Rio's mayor at the time. Brazil's infamous 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the final not only deprived the politicians of their storybook ending but also devastated the nation's self-esteem to the extent that legendary writer Nelson Rodrigues called it "our Hiroshima." In the ensuing years, Brazil would endure an economic crisis, a corruption scandal and the suicide of a beloved president. The national team wouldn't enjoy a shining moment at the Maracanã until 66 years later, when Neymar fired home the final penalty kick against Germany on August 20.

It's easy to imagine how "bread and circuses" could once again be used to distract the masses. The dour public mood has been the oxygen that allowed the Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) probe into corruption at Petrobras, which ultimately took down Rousseff, to keep burning over the past year. If people are happier and take their angry gaze off Brasília, it will become easier for Congress (and factions within the judiciary) to pass measures that would obstruct the work of investigators and let part of the establishment off the hook. Meanwhile, Rousseff's ouster means her successor, Michel Temer, who is almost as unpopular as she was, will work hard to draw a line under the misery of the past two years. Sure enough, in a newspaper editorial headlined "The World Rediscovers Brazil," Temer congratulated the soccer team for "passing from discredit to the pinnacle, opening a road that Brazil should also follow in other fields."

Will history repeat itself? I believe Brazil has matured, and the lessons of this crisis won't be easily forgotten. It's also possible that another event—such as upcoming plea bargains in the Lava Jato case—could rekindle public rage. But I also believe that nations have limits to their suffering and will eventually grasp at opportunities to move on. Confidence and sentiment are critical to politics and to economies, and optimism often becomes self-fulfilling. Furthermore, I know that journalists are always looking for grand narratives about the fate of nations. And that's why I would bet that Brazil's soccer gold, and the Olympics in general, will eventually be remembered by some as the beginning of the end of Brazil's crisis. Coincidence or not.

Brian Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, where a version of this article was first published.