Rio de Janeiro: Brazil's list of feats since ending authoritarian rule in the 1980s is as long as it is varied, including anti-poverty programs pulling millions into the middle class, the democratic election of presidents who suffered indignities under the dictatorship and the surging growth of tropical agriculture to help feed the world.
But instead of coming together to extol such triumphs on the global stage as the host of the World Cup, the soccer tournament starting Thursday with teams from 32 countries, Brazil is marked by rifts, with some people genuinely excited about the event while others are simmering with resentment over its ballooning costs and a sluggish post-boom economy.
While thousands poured into the streets in 2007 to celebrate Brazil's winning bid to host the World Cup, bitter strikes are now roiling major cities. In Sao Paulo, where the opening match between Brazil and Croatia is just days away, riot police officers on Monday used tear gas to disperse striking subway workers. Brazilian legends of the sport, from Ronaldo to Romario, are voicing shame and disgust about troubled preparations in the nation that has won the World Cup five times, more than any other country.
"This is the strangest atmosphere I've ever witnessed in Brazil before a World Cup, as apprehension and apathy threaten the normal excitement," said Antonio Riserio, a historian who explores soccer's role in shaping Brazil's national identity.
Only 34 percent of Brazilians think the World Cup will help the economy, which is in its fourth straight year of slow growth, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Thirty-nine percent say the tournament will actually hurt Brazil's image around the world, according to the face-to-face survey of 1,003 randomly selected adults from across the country.
More than 200 million people live in Brazil, Latin America's largest democracy, and the country has about as many opinions on hosting the World Cup. President Dilma Rousseff, in an interview last week in Brasilia, defended loans from state banks for building lavish World Cup stadiums, and said Brazilians were gearing up to embrace the tournament.
"The closer we get to the Cup, the more Brazil is going to show its passion for soccer," Rousseff said.
But signs of such enthusiasm still remain somewhat sparse. And with political analysts arguing over how the Cup's outcome may influence this year's presidential election, Rousseff's government is clearly hoping for a strong showing by Brazil's national team in a tournament unmarred by major problems.
The sense of malaise is partly about the preparations for the World Cup itself, but also reflects a deeper, underlying anxiety about the direction of the country as the economic slump has persisted amid waves of anti-government protests, reflecting demands for better services from the growing middle class.
The divisions are manifesting themselves in unlikely ways; even as many Brazilians voice support for a soccer team that has long been the nation's passion and pride, others are expressing unhappiness with placing the sport above other priorities.
Before a warm-up match last Friday between Brazil and Serbia, a subway strike in Sao Paulo wreaked havoc on millions of commuters. Raising the fear of more unrest, police officers dispersed the strikers by beating them with batons in scenes recorded on smartphones and spread in social media.
The game disappointed, too. Brazilian fans at the stadium booed even Neymar, the 22-year-old star of Brazil's national team, which limped to a 1-0 victory.
The jeers for stars who traditionally achieve something resembling the status of minor gods came as disenchantment festers with the country's soccer establishment, tainted by its ties to scandal-scarred FIFA, the organization that oversees international soccer and the World Cup, and revelations of bribes to top Brazilian soccer officials.
While the national team is still received warmly in many places, the players had to pass through a gantlet of protesters here in Rio de Janeiro this month on their way to their luxurious training camp in the mountains above the city. The chant of the striking teachers who led the protest: "An educator is worth more than Neymar."
"That talk about the national team being the patrimony of Brazil, the affirmation of our identity and civility and cordiality, no one swallows that anymore," said Arnaldo Bloch, a columnist for the newspaper O Globo.
Despite the tension surrounding the Cup, many Brazilians point out that the country has a tradition of warmly receiving foreign visitors, while pulling together at the last minute complex events like the Pan-American Games in 2007 or last year's World Youth Day, an international conference of Catholic youths which featured a visit by Pope Francis.
If Brazil starts winning, some contend that optimism will surge around the first World Cup in the country since 1950, and easily exceed the low expectations. "People are worried about how much has been spent," said Jose Evaraldo Bezerra, 48, a doorman at a residential building in Brasilia. "But once we see the first game, the parties will start."
Still, ire remains widespread over the estimated $11 billion cost of hosting the tournament, including subsidized loans for stadiums in cities like Brasilia, the capital; Cuiaba, a remote agribusiness center; and Manaus, an industrial hub deep in the Amazon, with paltry soccer fan bases.
More than 100,000 people celebrated in Manaus when it was chosen as a host city, but that sentiment has shifted.
"Why does a city like Manaus need an expensive and luxurious stadium when a few meters away there's a neighborhood, Alvorada, without sidewalks and treated sewage?" asked Milton Hatoum, a writer from Manaus.
In what may prove to be one of the World Cup's legacies, and perhaps even a parable to other countries with ambitions of hosting the tournament, others in Brazil's thriving but imperfect democracy are questioning why the country sought such a massive undertaking when its institutions already had trouble delivering on more mundane matters.
"We're the country of winging it, and that same characteristic which makes our soccer shine keeps us in an idyllic position in relation to any project," said Helio Gurovitz, editor of Epoca, a weekly newsmagazine. "We plan poorly, monitor even worse, leave everything until the last hour and believe it will work out in the end," he added. "Until, one day, it doesn't."
© 2014 New York Times News Service