Brazil remembers 1950 as 2014 FIFA World Cup approaches

Since Brazil last hosted the World Cup in 1950, the giant country has transformed itself on many levels to become the world's seventh-largest economy.

But organizing this year's event has highlighted the pitfalls facing a nation straining to modernize against a backdrop of political corruption and social upheaval.

Yet today, numerous parallels can be drawn with the organization of the 1950 tournament -- not least public gripes about high prices and myriad construction delays.

Demographic change has been stark.

Back then, barely half the population, which has since almost quadrupled from 54 million, was literate and just one third lived in urban areas compared with more than three-quarters today.

Rio was still the capital before being deposed by the temple of modernism, Brasilia, in 1960.

Whereas the left has held sway for the past decade, in 1950 Mussolini admirer Getulio Vargas was about to return as president having been deposed six years before by the army. Political instability would continue, another military coup lasting 21 years from 1964.

Writer Joao Maximo, among the record 200,000 who crammed into the old Maracana stadium to see a devastating 2-1 loss to Uruguay, says one thing the 1950 event had in common with this year's was the motivation to show what Brazil can achieve on the world stage.

"We were proud to see the stadiums -- we thought we must be an important country," Maximo said.

Brazil were famously denied their maiden trophy by Uruguay's gatecrashers, the defeat leaving a huge psychological scar.

For retired anthropologist Roberto da Matta, defeat was "a metaphor for the defects of Brazilian society."

Several of those defects have re-emerged this time round, not least late delivery of stadiums -- the Maracana was match ready just days before the final and not fully completed until 1965.

Sport or 'social' investment?

"Then, as now, opinion was divided into those for and those against, wanting more investment in health and investment," Bernardo Borges Buarque de Hollanda, researcher with the Getulio Vargas Foundation think tank, told AFP.

He adds World Cups are "about Brazil proving it can host a global event. Now, amid the protests going on since last June (at the cost), there is scepticism" as the hosts try to pull off a vastly bigger extravaganza.

In 1950, Brazil had little football tradition to show off -- unlike today, as the most successful World Cup nation boasting a record five titles.

It did not even have a national football league, formed only in 1959 as air transport links opened up.

Earlier interest centered on state leagues such as Rio's 'Carioca' and Sao Paulo's 'Paulista', going back to the early 1920s.

Today, Brazil boasts around 100 million internet users and 78 million Facebook devotees -- behind only the United States and India.

But in 1950, some 15 years after fledgling services started in countries including the United States, Britain and Germany, television in Brazil belonged to the future -- albeit an immediate one.

TV Tupi was inaugurated on September 18 of that year, another example of Brazil not quite being ready to seize the day, ironic for an event whose 2010 final drew a global audience of more than 700 million.

"We could only gather round the radio -- that was our link with the outside world, including the rest of the country," explained former journalist Sonia Benevides, then a schoolgirl in the far north.

Sociology and economics professor Marcelo Paixao of Rio's Federal University warns of a political backlash if the Cup goes badly for the hosts.

The country has thrown billions at readying 12 stadiums to host the games.

"If Brazil win, maybe it will be money well spent," says Paixao.

"But," he warns, "if they lose, the government will answer for it at the polls in October. In Brazil, World Cup year is always election year too."

The race issue

Paixao says one area where Brazil still struggles is combating racism.

"There are many black people in Brazil -- yet the elite have always had a problem coming to terms with this.

"In 1950, with World War II over, the world hoped the Nazi ideology of racial superiority was over.

"But we lost the final and (black goalkeeper Moacyr) Barbosa was a handy scapegoat.

"It was only in 1958, in Sweden, that black players -- Didi, Pele, Garrincha -- started coming through.

"In many ways I think there was less (racial) inequality in the 1950s," Paixao told AFP.

"You still see very few black presenters on sports programs and there are only a couple of black coaches.

"For black people, playing football is the most effective way of climbing the social ladder," Paixao observed. (AFP) - 

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