By Mick Krever, CNN
It was a stunning loss for a country that views soccer as a religion.
If Brazil has been shell-shocked since its 7-1 rout by Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup, the President who staked so much on the Cup, Dilma Rousseff, pledged in an exclusive interview with Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday that the loss will not shake the national psyche.
“There is one hallmark and feature about football,” she told Amanpour at the presidential palace in Brasilia. “It is made of victories and defeats. That’s part and parcel of the game.”
“And being able to overcome defeat I think is the feature and hallmark of a major national team and of a great country.”
Brazil, like so many other middle-income countries around the world, has been engaged in the great project of modernization, and lifting millions out of poverty.
Rousseff has had a long education in Brazilian politics – first as a left-wing guerrilla battling Brazil’s military dictatorship, then as right-hand woman to the heavyweight of Brazilian politics, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Despite the country’s deep-seated passion for soccer, its move to host the World Cup was controversial. Brazilians across the country turned out in the streets to protest the vast sums the government spent on stadiums and how they were built.
Rousseff was booed and jeered as she watched the opening match pitting the host nation against Croatia.
Now as she gears up for re-election in October, can President Rousseff push forward with Brazil’s grand transformation?
‘My nightmares never got so bad’
It is one thing to lose; it is quite something else to lose like that.
President Rousseff told Amanpour, she never imagined her country facing such a crushing World Cup defeat.
“My nightmares never got so bad, Christiane,” she said. “They never went that far. As a supporter, of course, I am deeply sorry because I share the same sorrow of all supporters. But I also know that we are a country that has one very peculiar feature. We rise to the challenge of adversity.”
Brazil came into the match missing its two star players: captain and main defender, Thiago Silva, and star striker, Neymar.
“Not being a person that is deeply knowledgeable about football, I do believe that there was a significant effect,” Rousseff said.
“Two hundred million Brazilians view themselves as coaches and they all of course will weigh in, voice their opinions about the national team.”
But despite the drubbing, President Rousseff said Germany deserves to be congratulated.
“This is not a war, after all. It is just a game. And that is why football charms us all.”
“So yes, I will greet Angela Merkel, and I will tell the German Chancellor that, yes, her team did play very well. They are to be congratulated.”
An extraordinary journey: Rousseff’s struggle against dictatorship
Rousseff says she “never dreamed of being the president,” and her early life gives some clue why.
From 1964 to 1984, a military dictatorship ruled Brazil; Rousseff was an urban guerilla, fighting against that regime.
That experience, she told Amanpour, made her who she is today.
“As a young person, yes, I did struggle against the dictatorship. I am the product of that period in time, yes. And I’m very proud of the fact that I struggled and fought the dictatorship of the time.”
“It is very difficult to live under a dictatorship. Dictatorship limits your dreams. And when one has no right to express oneself or organize your efforts, any act of disagreement becomes an act of opposition under dictatorship.”
Rousseff felt the awful weight of that dictatorship when she was arrested in the 1970s and spent three years in jail, where she was frequently tortured.
“It was an experience – an experience where one learns that two things are necessary: Number one, to resist. And you realize that only you, yourself, can defeat yourself.”
“I’m not saying that it is easy to support, to tolerate, or to put up with torture. It is not easy to tolerate torture.”
“And you can only tolerate or put up with torture if you deliberately deceive yourself by telling yourself, well, a little bit more, yes, I can cope with that. I can also cope with a little bit more, a little bit more. And you deliberately mislead yourself, if you will, because you cannot allow torture to defeat you.”
“You cannot allow yourself to be contaminated by what torturers think of you.”
She endured, she told Amanpour, “the worst form of torture.”
“People were hung by their arms and legs on this piece of wood, as well as a lot of electric shock.”
“An act of torture and pain perpetrated by one upon someone else is unpardonable. It’s a barbaric act. Anyone who perpetrates torture has lost all human values, and has lost all the gains we as human beings have established as civilization gains ever since we left the caves.”
“I have never seen a torturing process that has not ultimately destroyed the institution that has engaged in torture,” she said.
Torture, she said, “has led me to live life in a more intensive way.”
“There’s just one way for torture not to contaminate you; you cannot allow it to develop anger or hatred towards those who perpetrated torture against you. You cannot allow that to go into your being.”
The victory against torture was not personal, against those who perpetrated it, she said, but much broader.
“It is a much broader victory because, in Brazil, nationwide, we have ultimately defeated the institutional establishment that engaged in torture. And we did so by building democracy.”
“In Brazil, we have this so-called lust, love – for democracy.”
Lifting up the country
Brazil, among the BRIC nations, is modernizing at breakneck pace.
Since 2003, Rousseff said, the country has lifted 36 million people out of poverty and brought 42 million into the middle class. But that process, of course, is never trouble-free.
The country’s growth-rate has slowed since the global economic crisis, yet she proudly promotes Brazil’s relatively low unemployment, plus government spending on infrastructure and health.
She reeled off a torrent of statistics on how much had been poured into these sectors.
“It is my belief that we will now move into a new development cycle in Brazil,” she said.
“As a country, we must wage a bet on education. Education can take care of two things: number one, you can ensure that those people who have improved their income and standards of living will be in a position to ensure continuity of those gains.
“And number two, we must move into the knowledge economy and value added economy.”
Amanpour asked just “how deep” the problem of corruption is.
Rousseff acknowledged Brazil, like many other developing nations suffers corrosive corruption.
“My entire life shows that I advocate zero tolerance towards corruption,” Rousseff said. “At the federal public service level, we have established the transparency or accountability web portal, where all government spending, all government purchases and procurement made by the federal government are shown or posted on the accountability web portal within less than 24 hours after the expenses are made.”
As for the police forces, Rousseff said it “is perhaps one of Brazil’s major challenges.”
Police in Brazil are responsible for around 2,000 deaths a year, according to Amnesty International – a disturbing statistic for a country with an authoritarian past.
“Fighting criminal activity cannot be conducted using the same methods that are used by the criminals themselves, and that is very often what happens.”
“The police service in Brazil are assigned to the state level governments as established under the federal constitution. I believe we may have to revisit that arrangement and revise that article of the constitution.”
Pride and politics
Brazil’s World Cup performance is important to President Rousseff not only as a matter of national pride, but as a matter of politics.
"If we had won,” one Brazilian told CNN’s Isa Soares in Rio de Janeiro, “the people would have forgotten all the money spent; at least now the realities are back in focus.”
The country saw widespread anger and protests against what many viewed as excessive spending on stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup.
Many question the decision, for example, to build a stadium in Manaus, deep in Brazil’s rainforested interior; there is no football team to fill the stadium once the Cup has concluded.
Rousseff defended the decision.
“Manaus is a city that is not only close to the world’s largest tropical forest, but it is also in a region that is inhabited by twenty million Brazilians. And those twenty million Brazilians who live in that region do deserve a stadium that will stage all of the different activities that are usually conducted in any other stadium in South or Southeastern Brazil.”
Part of the solution, Rousseff said, is for Brazil to stop “exporting football players.”
“Exporting football players means that we give up the main attraction that can help stadiums be crowded with supporters. After all, what is the biggest attraction that a country like Brazil has to attract supporters to stadiums? Its football supporters and players.”
Rousseff, who is bidding for re-election this October, put a big emphasis on the World Cup as a chance for Brazil to prove itself on the world stage.
“One has to bear in mind that from all different aspects, the fact is that Brazil has organized and staged a World Cup which I do believe is one of the world's best World Cups. And that is largely due to the Brazilian people’s ability to offer and extend hospitality and welcome supporters from all over the world.”
‘Harsh women’ and ‘cute men’
Being a female president, Rousseff said, “is still viewed as a different fact in today’s world.”
“Woman who are political leaders are viewed as being harsh women, cold, surrounded by … cute men.”
“But I think both things are not true. As leaders – as female leaders, as presidents, or as chancellors – we are just women exercising our role as women.”
“It is quite certain and doubtless that women do know by definition that people are about feelings and emotions, in addition to thoughts and rationalities. I think that is a fundamental difference.”