The Fifa World Cup represents all the great virtues of globalisation. As teams, cultures and national pride come together, all vying for the top spot and global recognition, it provides a unique snapshot of the world across political, economic and religious divides and a retrospective view of the dynamics shaping our ever-changing world order.
Few games depict these changes better than the group-of-death clash between Portugal and Brazil: a former colonial power from the so-called “old world” versus an emerging global power from the developing south. While Brazil is on the rise, Portugal is the latest European basket case teetering on the brink of default.
A leading nation in the 1500s to 1700s, Portugal produced explorers like Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral, who spearheaded the age of discovery, forging new sea routes to India and, in the process, stamping Portugal’s dominance in trade and commerce around resource-rich Africa and Brazil.
But after 322 years of colonial rule, Brazil gained independence and Portugal lost control of the steady supply of resources that were its lifeblood.
Today a reversal of colonial misfortunes has turned Brazil into a country of seemingly endless potential and a leading driver of global economic growth. With its vast size and assortment of natural resources, Brazil has long been poised for greatness. But political and economic instability, with alarmingly high poverty levels, crime and perpetual inequality, have dashed expectations.
Finally, a fortuitous combination of positive economic performance, effective political leadership, a growing middle class and genuine optimism across society has lifted Brazil to new heights. The global crisis may have stifled growth in 2008-2009, but Brazil quickly bounced back and looks set to resume 5% economic growth in 2010. Portugal’s economy, meanwhile, is expected to decline for the third year running.
In terms of market size Brazil eclipses its former colonial master by about seven to one, while its 190-million-strong population outnumbers Portugal 15 to one. But Portugal still trumps Brazil in terms of human development, with a per capita income more than double that of Brazil.
Still, income disparities and unemployment in Portugal have worsened while Brazilian social programmes have improved the livelihood of millions. Unemployment in Portugal could reach a record 11% in 2010, well above the 8% expected in Brazil.
In an ironic twist of fate and history Portugal has turned to its former colonies for assistance during these hard times. Both Angola and Brazil have extended support through commercial agreements in resource extraction, biodiesel and aircraft manufacturing. Portuguese companies, eager to capitalise on Brazil’s hosting of the Fifa World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, are seeking preferential access to that market.
In return Brazil expects support in its relations with Europe and, more broadly, in its aspirations as a global power and potential permanent seat holder at the UN Security Council.
Part of the coveted Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) grouping and a leading member of the G20 formation that is shaping the new financial architecture, Brazil has begun to embrace its new role and is increasingly active well beyond its immediate region.
This is particularly evident in Africa, where it has historically challenged Portugal. Recognising the independence of many lusophone states before they were conceded by Portugal, in 1975 Brazil became the first “Western” government to recognise the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) government. Years later this has proved to be an astute strategic manoeuvre for Brazil’s growing interests in Africa. Angola, which views Brazil as an older brother figure, welcomes Brazilian investment with open arms. Angolans also claim a cultural affinity with Brazil that many insist is stronger than that shared with Portugal.
The last time Brazil and Portugal met on the football field under similar circumstances was at the 1972 Independence Cup, in celebration of 150 years of Brazilian independence. Brazil scored a symbolic victory in the closing minute of that game. Many believed this marked the start of Brazil’s ascendency and the end of Portugal’s colonial grip.
While it may indeed have coincided with the end of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, Brazil’s victory failed to trigger its much-anticipated rise on the global stage.
Perhaps this time around Brazil will go beyond being just a team and a country that is beautiful to watch and finally assume its position as an economic superpower.
Or will Portugal, the underdog and spent force of the lusophone world, rediscover the unquenchable wanderlust that once placed it at the pinnacle of the world and which instilled a flair that is still evident in their football players today?
Dr Lyal White is a senior lecturer at the Gordon Institute of Business Science