SAO PAULO It has long been a source of unparalleled pride, a common bond uniting a disparate nation, something Brazilians could always point to even in times of economic ruin or authoritarian rule that made them the best in the world.
But these days, Brazil, the most successful nation in World Cup history, home to legends like Pelé and Ronaldo, is finding little comfort in "the beautiful game."
In the most unexpected of ways, Brazil's obsession with soccer has become a potent symbol of what ails the country. Ever since protests began sweeping across Brazil this week, demonstrators have taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to vent their rage at political leaders of every stripe, at the reign of corruption, at the sorry state of public services.
Now, pointing to the billions of dollars spent on stadiums at the expense of basic needs, a growing number of protesters are telling fans around the globe to do what would once seem unthinkable to boycott the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a sign of how thoroughly the country has been turned upside down, even some of the nation's revered soccer heroes have become targets of rage for distancing themselves from the popular uprising.
"Pelé and Ronaldo are making money off the cup with their advertising contracts, but what about the rest of the nation?" asked one protester, Gabriela Costa, 24, a university student.
Protesters lambasted both men after Pelé, whose full name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, called on Brazilians to "forget the protests," and a video circulated on social media showing Ronaldo, whose name is Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, now a television commentator and sports marketing strategist, contending that World Cups are accomplished "with stadiums, not hospitals."
With hordes of protesters rallying outside soccer matches, clashing with the police and setting vehicles on fire, FIFA, soccer's international governing body, took pains to reassure the world Friday that it had "full trust" in Brazil's ability to provide security and had not considered canceling either the 2014 World Cup or the Confederations Cup, a major international tournament currently taking place in Brazil.
But the fact that soccer officials even had to address the issue was a major embarrassment to Brazilian officials, who had fought so hard to land international events like the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in order to showcase what a stable, democratic power their nation had become.
Now instead of being the culmination of Brazil's rise, the events and the enormous expense of hosting them have become a rallying cry for the protesters to show how out of step their government's priorities are with what the people want and need.
While the government says it is spending more than $13 billion to prepare for the World Cup, including related construction projects, most of the stadiums are over budget, according to official findings.
"I love soccer," said Arnaldo da Silva, 29, a supervisor at a telecommunications company, who celebrated back in 2007 when Brazil landed the World Cup but was also among the protesters in the streets this week, denouncing spending on stadiums when the infrastructure around those structures, like sidewalks, is crumbling. "It's as if we're divided between our heart and our head."
As far back as the 1930s, fans swelled with pride over the feats of players like Leonidas da Silva, a striker known as the "Black Diamond" who stunned European opponents with remarkably creative plays. Some Brazilian players like Socrates, the hard-drinking medical doctor who was captain of Brazil's 1982 World Cup team, transcended the sport by taking part in the pro-democracy movement against Brazil's military dictatorship.
But now Brazil's star players, even those speaking favorably of the new wave of protests, are suddenly finding themselves under scrutiny in new ways.
"Brazil, wake up! A teacher is worth more than Neymar!" thousands of protesters shouted at a demonstration this week outside the new stadium built in Fortaleza in northeast Brazil, referring to the wealth of Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., the 21-year-old star who recently joined Barcelona, a Spanish soccer club.
On the field, the national team finds itself in the doldrums, dropping to a historic low of No. 22 in the rankings of FIFA. And at the Brazilian Football Confederation, which oversees the sport in the country, the longtime president, Ricardo Teixeira, resigned in 2012. He cited health reasons, but he had faced allegations of corruption.
Meanwhile, his successor, José Maria Marin, 80, has come under fire over his support for Brazil's military dictatorship and being shown on video slipping a medal from a youth tournament into his pocket. Later, he said the medal was given to him.
"Brazil was coming into the preparations for the World Cup with a swagger from its growing economic clout," said Alex Bellos, a Briton who has written widely on Brazilian soccer. "But there's the sense now that the sport is beset by various problems, even before the protests erupted."
In its bid to win the 2007 Pan American Games, Rio de Janeiro promised that it would build a new highway, a monorail and miles of new subway lines, but none of those projects came to fruition. The games themselves were over budget, and a number of the venues were so poorly constructed that they are either being knocked down or reconstructed for the Olympics.
The Engenhao stadium, built for track and field and then used by Botafogo, a Rio soccer club, was to be the main venue for the 2016 Olympics. But that is now in doubt after technicians ruled that the roof could collapse in windy weather and ordered it closed.
"I think Brazilians are feeling insulted to see that there was political will and large investments to construct big, FIFA-quality soccer fields," said Antonio Carlos Costa, 51, a Presbyterian pastor and leader of Rio de Paz, a group that combats social inequalities in Brazil. "And when these stadiums went up, the people saw that there was not the same political will to use public funds to build the same standard of schools, hospitals and public security."
Outside the Sao Paulo construction site of a stadium being built for a local team, Corinthians, which will also be used for the World Cup, Ana Paula Pereira, 36, a fan and bar owner, was torn by the turn the protests had taken. She supported the demands of the demonstrators on the streets but did not think that it made sense to target her beloved team.
"There has to be the World Cup, but there also have to be hospitals," she said.