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Brazil plays with fire as World Cup deadline looms

Cost overruns and strikes prompt many to ask whether country was ready to host tournament

The Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova, which will host matches during the 2014 Fifa World Cup, which begins on June 12.
The Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova, which will host matches during the 2014 Fifa World Cup, which begins on June 12.Mario Tama (Getty)

On the warmest summer on record in Curitiba in the last decade, a group of soccer fans seek the shade of a tree to discuss the ongoing construction of Arena da Baixada, the stadium that has suffered the most delays out of the 12 venues that will host the World Cup in Brazil from June 12 to July 13.

Amid the deafening sounds of saws and cranes, the talk turns inevitably to the pace of construction. “It will be ready in time,” says one of the more optimistic members of the group, who explains he has noticed workers pick up speed this week.

But the debate goes well beyond the neighborhood of Agua Verde, where the stadium in which Spain is supposed to play is located. The cityscape of Curitiba, a city of 1.8 million, is currently dominated by an unfinished bridge located between the airport and Arena da Baixada. Traffic cones force cars to weave in and out of areas filled with tractors and heavy machinery. “We have to deal with these complications,” sighs one taxi driver.

With just over 100 days to go, five out of 12 stadiums are still unfinished

On Tuesday, Fifa officials decided to keep Curitiba as a site in this year’s World Cup.

But residents of other cities face the same dilemma: will everything be ready by June 12? The general feeling is that little has been done since 2007, when Brazil won the bid to host the 2014 World Cup. Seven years have elapsed and half of the stadiums are incomplete.

“Since I’ve been in Fifa, this is the country that has the most delays, yet it’s the only one that had so much time — seven years — to prepare,” said the organization’s president Joseph Blatter in the magazine France Football.

The 2007 decision to award the Cup to Brazil not only challenged the country’s ability to organize a great sporting event, but also forced it to demonstrate its role as an emerging power. Fueled by growth rates of more than five percent, Brazil had enough time to prepare for this event, both inside and outside the stadiums.

With just over 100 days to go before the opening game, five out of the 12 stadiums are still under construction, significant cost overruns exist, and the list of projects to improve mobility in the country’s cities has gradually gotten shorter. Enthusiasm has waned at the same pace as euphoria has abated over the economy. Since May 2012, the transportation infrastructure budget has been slashed from 11.5 billion reals (3.45 billion euros) to a little over eight billion reals (around 2.4 billion euros), according to the Architecture and Engineering Union (Sinaenco).

Brazil is a developing country, with infrastructure deficiencies"

Porto Alegre, in the south, holds the record for the most abandoned projects. In São Paulo and Manaus, plans for monorails were ditched. Other projects that went out the window include a high-speed rail link between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, despite repeated mentions of it in official speeches.

Brazil’s executive secretary at the Sports Ministry, Luis Manuel Fernandes, told EL PAÍS that the government is certain all the construction work considered “essential” is already or will soon be finished, ahead of the championship. Fernandes also added that unfinished projects will be absorbed by the federal government’s Growth Acceleration Program (PAC). “Brazil is a developing country, with infrastructure deficiencies. Hosting the World Cup and the Olympic Games [in Rio in 2016] gives us a chance to speed up on the works that Brazil needs and which would take longer to implement without these events.”

But the ballooning costs of stadium construction could be the fuel that sees the streets burst into flames, mirroring last year’s events during the Fifa Confederations Cup, when thousands of furious citizens demonstrated against fare hikes in public transportation. Slogans such as: “I want money for health and education” could be heard again, just three months before presidential and legislative elections. President Dilma Rousseff still has a wide lead in the polls, but the federal government would rather not run the risk of having its image tarnished by street protests.

Conservative cost estimates for organizing the World Cup by a country still struggling to offer quality public services put it at about 25.5 billion reals (7.7 billion euros). Of this amount, 14 billion is being put up by the central government, 7.8 billion by the states and only 3.7 billion is from private investors. The projected cost of the stadiums was 5.5 billion reals, around 45 percent lower than the current figure. And that number could still rise as inauguration day approaches.

The delays at many stadiums are being blamed on financial difficulties and on workers’ strikes to demand better wages or working conditions. Seven workers have already died on site, two of them on the same day. One of them fell 35 meters while he was installing lights at the Manaus stadium. Fifa had set December 31 as the deadline for finishing the stadiums. That is why completion of Arena das Dunas, in Natal, on January 22 was cause for national celebration.

In November, the executive director of the local organizing committee, Ricardo Trade, told EL PAÍS that it was important for the stadiums to be finished by the Fifa deadline “so we will have time to play rehearsal tournaments, and ensure that things work the way fans, delegations and the press deserve them to work during the real Cup.”

But that was before reality left these plans to shreds.

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