Philip Jeyaretnam For The Straits Times

Wealth inequality and the glue that binds Brazil

Children playing football at an intersection on the Avenida Presidente Vargas in Rio de Janeiro in support of road safety. Impromptu games of football break out on the streets, or take organised form to promote one social cause or another. There can
Children playing football at an intersection on the Avenida Presidente Vargas in Rio de Janeiro in support of road safety. Impromptu games of football break out on the streets, or take organised form to promote one social cause or another. There can be no doubt that Brazilians genuinely love the game.PHOTO: PHILIP JEYARETNAM

In the absence of strongly inclusive national institutions, football has historically provided the glue that has bound Brazil's disparate population. And disparate it certainly is. Brazil, with its vast tropical plantations, was the largest importer of slaves from Africa in the 19th century. It abolished slavery only in 1888, three decades after the American Civil War.

Most Brazilians take genuine pride both in the country's unique record of success in football and its aesthetic relationship with the game. The ball to a Brazilian is feminine, and must be caressed and cajoled, never commanded, into doing a player's bidding. Thus, as only Brazilians understand its gender, only Brazilians have achieved true mastery of bend and swerve in the flight of a football.

Yet there is also ambivalence, and this has sharpened dramatically over the past two years. It stems from how football in the past had been a distraction, a circus party thrown by the ruling elite - often a military regime - that struggled to provide bread for everyone.

This soured the celebration of Brazil's victory in Mexico in the 1970 Fifa World Cup. On the pitch, Brazil won in extraordinary style. Off the pitch, at the presidential palace, General Emilio Garrastazu Medici described the victory in terms of national development and the collective good. In doing so, he appropriated it not merely for the nation but for his own regime, as if victory at the World Cup could supply an absent democratic mandate.

Today, the government is socialist, and has been for more than a decade. But despite official efforts at social transformation, Brazil remains the third worst of all the 32 participants in this year's World Cup in terms of income inequality. Only Honduras and Columbia are worse on this measure. Walking along Avenida Paulista - the Orchard Road of Sao Paulo - or strolling along Ipanema - the Sentosa Cove of Rio de Janeiro - the experience is wholly First World, but just out of sight are the favelas - shanty towns - that are home to most poorer residents.

It was this socialist government, headed by former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, that in 2007 won the bid to host the World Cup. It then embarked on an ambitious programme of building works to upgrade the country's sporting and transport infrastructure. This building programme has been beset with difficulties, including huge budget overruns, indefinitely deferred projects (such as the high-speed train between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) and safety issues. More pointedly, the heavy expenditure on new stadiums dramatised the stark contrast with under-provision of hospitals and schools.

Some of the popular anger has also been directed at Fifa. The Federation of International Football Associations after all remains an organisation marked by the ethos of 1970s Brazil.

It is stamped by the influence of Mr Joao Havelange, the Brazilian who was its seventh president and ran the organisation for a remarkable 24 years.

Ticket prices are too high for ordinary Brazilians to attend games, and in a country where the boundaries of class and race often seem to coincide, this leads to the unsettling sight of lighter-skinned Brazilians only cheering on a team mostly comprised of darker Brazilians. However, as the matches are shown free, at every street corner, there is a bar or stall with the games showing, and crowds gathering to scream their support.

Fears of a restive populace have proven to be largely overblown, as national pride and the spirit of hospitality have taken hold. Impromptu games of football break out on the streets or take organised form to promote one social cause or another. Above all, there can be no doubt that Brazilians genuinely love the game and are not afraid to show it.

But when the World Cup comes to an end, the questions raised by this extraordinary jamboree will remain unanswered. Is football a unifying force, or a distraction for the masses? Is Thomas Piketty, the author of the much discussed book on wealth inequality, Capital In The Twenty-First Century, correct?

He argues that capitalism, left unchecked, will widen wealth inequality to social breaking point, simply because the rate of return on capital demanded by those who have it must exceed the rate of economic growth that might benefit workers. If he is right, what state intervention is required in order to forestall the inevitable breakdown in social and political order?

Brazil at least has seen both economic and social progress. That questions about social justice are discussed and demonstrations occur without violence show how Brazil has matured from where it was in the 1970s. Although her popularity has declined recently, President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's first female president, is still likely to be re-elected in October. A former Marxist and guerrilla fighter against the same military regime that appropriated Brazil's 1970 triumph, she has moved her Workers Party towards a more pragmatic brand of socialism.

On a smaller scale, the same questions about inequality rightly occupy prime place in Singapore's own debates concerning economic and social policy. How we relate to football is emblematic too. That watching the World Cup on television is more expensive for Singaporeans than for any other nation brings into focus how privatisation of public services has sometimes raised costs for ordinary Singaporeans. That the games are shown free at community centres across the island shows that we can craft an inclusionary response when put to the test.

Returning to Brazil, huge challenges remain, but if hosting the World Cup has given the country the opportunity to confront the fundamental issue of inequality, then perhaps the overspending on stadiums and associated infrastructure will ultimately be worthwhile. And if the national team wins the tournament for the first time on home soil, then will all be forgiven?

The writer is a senior counsel and managing partner of Rodyk & Davidson LLP