Flying to Rio de Janeiro’s local Santos Dumont Airport is profound and magical. You pass Sugarloaf Mountain, sail over Guanabara Bay and see Rio’s beauty from every angle. It’s truly A Cidade Maravilhosa, The Marvellous City, for natural splendour. Only South Africa’s Cape Town comes a close second.

But under a stream of gloomy news, Rio is struggling to uphold its grandeur. The national mood and conscience have suffered ever since Brazil’s unforgiving 1-7 semi-final defeat to Germany in the 2014 Fifa World Cup. The Germans showcased the best of modern football: plenty of ball possession, swift transitions, quick-fire passing, superb movement and lethal counterattacking. On July 8 that year, at the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, Die Nationalmannschaft revealed its own superb version of the game. It made Brazilian football outdated, outmoded and irrelevant.

The game was cataclysmic. Brazil’s economy has stagnated and then declined. The gross domestic product has shrunk close to a 10th with a recession bordering on a depression. Initially, Brazil abided the global recession well, but now the South American giant may slip outside the top 10 leading economies, behind India and Italy. Then, there is suspended President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment battle, the Petrobras scandal and nagging concerns over the Zika virus. At this time, the Olympic Games are a luxury and eccentricity Brazil can ill-afford.

The winning mentality

The public’s reception has been tepid: ticket sales have been disappointing with 30% unsold. However, next to the dire climate, there is another reason why Rio’s inhabitants, the Cariocas, and other Brazilians elsewhere aren’t overly enthusiastic about the Olympic Games. Brazilians don’t love sports, they love winning. Football is the best explainer for the Brazilian sports culture.

“Football is the vehicle for a series of dramatisations of our society,” wrote Roberto Da Matta, a prominent Brazilian anthropologist. In Brazil, a country of 200 million, football isn’t merely a game; it’s a cultural construct with parallels in Brazilian society, and the transformations evident in football correspond to the changes in society.

As far back as 1933, when football was professionalised in Brazil, the country’s president Getulio Vargas, influenced by Benito Mussolini’s corporatism, used the sport as a powerful tool to consolidate national identity. Football victories became all important. They were glorifying moments for Brazil, a society with a low self-esteem and dubbed by Eric Hobsbawm as “the world champions of inequality”. Football and the Seleção Brasileira were transformed into a metaphor for the nation, tasked to show the supposed grandeur of Brazil to the world.

As the Brazilian middle class expanded in the noughties under the policies of President Lula Da Silva, the importance of futebol diminished. Brazilians became consumers, enjoying the benefits of low-end capitalism, getting a veneer of self-esteem. The Seleção Brasileira no longer had an end-all, representational function. When the team, or even a club, lost, fans held the line, “This team doesn’t represent me.”

“Football had no problem of different classes,” says Vladimir Safatle, a philosopher and columnist for Brazil’s largest newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo. “Everyone was part of the same feeling. Germany-Brazil touched a sensitive point of Brazil’s image. Brazilian identity is best constructed in football, where we can show our creativity and our special way of living. Football was an expression of the Brazilian way of life. Now, that turned out to be a false image, a fantasy, a ideological illusion.”

World Cup tales

The World Cup revealed Brazil’s outdated football and also accentuated the divide and polarisation in Brazilian society. Resentment about the public spending on the World Cup stadiums, about $11 billion, still festered, but not so overtly. “Where is the social unrest?” asked the then Fifa president Sepp Blatter midway though the World Cup. The tournament generated $4 billion in revenue for world football's governing body.

The International Olympics Committee, the IOC, is also projecting a revenue of $4 billion in the period between 2013 and 2016, largely based on income from television rights, marketing and ticketing linked to the Rio Olympic Games. The local organisers will spend £9.1 billion on the event and related infrastructure, supposedly with 58% from private investment. But the state government has admitted it is bankrupt.

Inside the venues, the atmosphere will be abundantly festive. At the World Cup, Brazilian fans came dressed in Tommy Hilfiger and Armani, and wore RayBan sunglasses. Selfies and Facebook posts were compulsory. “Sou Brasileiro, com muito orgulho, com muito amor. (I am Brazilian, with much pride, with much love),” they mostly sang, but they lacked the genuine fandom that other South Americans countries, the Argentineans and Chileans first and foremost, who had travelled to Brazil so proudly exuded.

With ticket prices for Brazilian residents ranging from $11 for regular events to $1,103 for the opening ceremony, the crowds at the 16-day sports bonanza will always be homogenous. Brazil’s GDP per capita was $11,208, according to the World Bank. The lucky ticket holders will further exacerbate a sentiment of sterile fans, interested in winning, removed from any authentic sports fandom. They will flock to the events of Brazilian swimmer Cesar Cielso, gymnast Arthur Zanetti, football player Neymar and Bernardinho’s volleyball team, akin to supporting the late legendary Formula 1 driver Aryton Senna and tennis star Gustavo Kuerten at their high point, riding a wave of mass emotion.

“All sports where Brazil has a chance to win will be vibrant,” says Henrik Jönsson, the South America correspondent of leading Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. “But will they cheer for other sports? Brazilians are into winning, not watching.”