Brazil's Rousseff gets a boost as World Cup starts well

SAO PAULO Tue Jun 17, 2014 1:14pm EDT

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff waits to receive Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, June 16, 2014.  REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino (BRAZIL  - Tags: POLITICS)   - RTR3U4B3

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff waits to receive Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, June 16, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino (BRAZIL - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3U4B3

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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil's hosting of the World Cup has been far from perfect but it has gone more smoothly than many expected, boosting President Dilma Rousseff's chances for re-election in October.

Preparations for the month-long soccer tournament were plagued by delays and overspending on stadiums, and numerous infrastructure projects that did not get finished.

Public anger over those issues, plus a slow economy, fueled street protests and a general sour mood among Brazilians in recent months.

Those problems did not magically go away when Brazil opened the tournament with a victory over Croatia last Thursday.

However, fears of major logistical meltdowns at stadiums and overcrowded airports have so far been unfounded. Anti-government protests have broken out in several cities and some have turned violent, but most have gathered only a few hundred people and they appear to be shrinking by the day.

Rousseff has tied her fate to the World Cup, championing it as a chance to show Brazil's recent economic progress to the world. A debacle could significantly damage her chances for re-election in October, especially at a time when her two main opponents have been closing on her in polls.

There are still plenty of opportunities for mistakes before the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro on July 13 but all 12 stadiums have now been tested and the outcome seems to have surpassed the generally low expectations of both Brazilians and the roughly 600,000 foreign fans who are here.

"I was scared we'd humiliate ourselves ... but it's been fine," said João Veiga Moraes, an insurance clerk in Sao Paulo who was wearing a Brazil team jersey as he headed to work on Tuesday morning. "Everybody seems to be happy."

Even what looked at first like a humiliating setback for Rousseff, when she was repeatedly jeered and cursed by fans while she attended the opening game in Sao Paulo, seems to be working in her favor.

The spectacle of thousands of Brazilians chanting "Hey Dilma! Go take it in the (expletive)!" at Brazil's first woman president has generated a widespread backlash and will likely to become a recurring theme in Rousseff's campaign.

In a country with one of the world's biggest gaps between rich and poor, leaders from the ruling leftist Workers' Party have portrayed the crowd as members of a big-city elite angry over social welfare programs and other recent economic advances made by the lower classes.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff's predecessor as president and her political mentor, presented her with a white rose at a campaign rally on Friday and lamented the "cretinous act."

"The Brazilian elite is managing to do what we never did, which was to awaken hatred between classes," Lula said.

POSSIBLE BUMP IN POLLS

Rousseff has struck a less divisive but still defiant pose, vowing she would not be "cowered," and saying that the jeers were nothing compared to the torture she endured as a militant fighting a military dictatorship in the early 1970s.

Some opposition party leaders say privately that relief over the tournament's opening, and sympathy over the jeering, could provide Rousseff with a small bump in upcoming polls.

Aecio Neves, Rousseff's closest opponent in the election race, at first appeared to justify the crowd's reaction, calling it "a sign of what's happening in Brazil." He later issued a statement on Facebook calling for more personal respect toward the president, but some feared it came too late.

"The stadium episode was a gift" to Rousseff, an official in Neves' PSDB Party said, adding that it was distracting attention from Brazil's slow economy and high inflation above 6 percent.

Elsewhere, the tournament's execution has seen some glitches. Problems have ranged from long lines at airports and stadium entrances to robberies of foreign fans and even an infestation of ants in the Uruguayan team's hotel.

But, taken together, the problems don't seem significantly worse than those at other recent big sporting events around the world, visiting fans and journalists have said.

So far, it has been a particularly exciting tournament with several memorable games and lots of goals making fans happy.

Still, Brazil may yet face negative repercussions from its poor preparations for the Cup.

Many voters are still angry over the more than $11 billion spent to host the tournament in a country where hospitals and schools are often of poor quality.

Attention is likely to shift after the Cup to expensive new stadiums in places like Manaus and Cuiaba where soccer draws crowds of only a few thousand people.

Also, by declaring public holidays in cities on game days in order to ensure less traffic and other smooth logistics, the government may be further smothering an economy that is expected to grow barely 1 percent this year.

The public's mood could also worsen if Brazil's team fails to meet expectations that it will win a record sixth World Cup, and its first ever at home.

That may explain why Brazilian officials, who gained a reputation for self-congratulation during the country's rise over the past decade, have been muted so far in public.

Asked on Sunday if the Cup has been a victory for the government, Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo shrugged and said: "I think we've met expectations."

"We've had some little problems, but nothing that would constitute a big problem," he told Reuters. "Foreign fans have been well received. Airports are working."

"We have many games still to play."

(Editing by Kieran Murray)

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