Just 10 days before it was due to host the opening game and opening ceremony for the 2014 World Cup, Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians held yet another test event. It was to be the first time that the newly built stadium in Brazil’s most populous city was to be tried out with its full 68,000 capacity; something that FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke had said was a “vital” requirement. Instead, the test again fell short, with one of the temporary stands being denied a safety certificate. Now, a match set to be viewed by an estimated 1 billion people across the globe will be played in an arena where its full facilities are being used for the very first time.
It is far from the only element of late drama heading into this World Cup, leading to Valcke admitting last month that FIFA had “been through hell.”
The delays have been exacerbated and attracted further negative attention due to the deaths of construction workers at the Arena Corinthians, as well as at the stadium in Cuiaba, which, along with venues in Curitiba and Natal, are still not fully completed.
While most important from the footballing aspect, in many ways the problems have been even greater away from the stadiums. Since the 2006 World Cup, FIFA’s Fan Fests have become an integral part of the tournament; a place where tens of thousands of fans without tickets in a host city could go and soak up the World Cup atmosphere, all the while lapping up the entertainment, food and beverages provided by FIFA’s exclusive sponsorship partners.
When one of those host cities, Recife, announced in February that they would not be footing the $4.6 million bill to host the event, FIFA came down hard citing contracts that had been signed and that couldn’t be breached. In the end, FIFA got its wish.
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There have been concerns, too, about the delays in upgrading the country’s airports. An estimated 3.7 million people are set to travel in Brazil during the World Cup and, with the vast distances between host venues and lack of a rail network, almost all of it will be by air. It is thought that many of the renovations will now be delayed until after the World Cup. Instead of a planned new terminal at the airport in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, fans will now be greeted by the sight of a tent. Yet Brazil President Dilma Rousseff recently provided her assurances.
“I guarantee that our airports are prepared for the World Cup,” she said in a radio address last month, according to the Associated Press. “We will welcome everyone very well. Our airports are prepared to offer good services to everyone coming to watch the World Cup.”
It is an extraordinary place for Brazil to be in given just how long they have had to prepare for the event. It is seven years since Brazil was officially unveiled as host for the 2014 World Cup, but that status was effectively clear as early as 2003, when FIFA declared that the tournament would take place in South America and Brazil was the only viable candidate.
There were immediately delays in simply selecting the host cities. Brazil furthered their subsequent problems by lobbying FIFA to increase the number of host cities from 10 to 12 in order to spread matches around the whole country. The man behind that push, then-Brazilian Federation President Ricardo Teixeira, resigned in 2012 after a series of corruption allegations. The initial lack of government involvement was another issue that even FIFA has since suggested was a mistake.
While pushing the benefits of the tournament around the country, the decision was also made to try and appease the population by having Brazil’s games all over the country. That had a knock-on effect, meaning that several teams in the group stage will also have to travel vast distances between games, putting further stress on the internal transportation system.
With the incredible delays, it soon became clear that it would be impossible to finish all the planned projects. Inevitably, the stadiums became the priority and much of the local infrastructure projects fell by the wayside. Additionally, the original declaration that the building and redevelopment of stadiums would be entirely financed by private money has fallen by the wayside. Instead, $3.6 billion in taxpayer money has now gone into stadiums, as much as twice the amount for stadiums at the last two World Cups, in South Africa and Germany, according to the Wall Street Journal.
When the shiny new stadiums, at least the ones which were completed, were presented to the world during last year’s Confederations Cup, at the same time that Brazilians were subjected to a price hike on a still substandard mass transportation system, it is not hard to see why millions took to the streets. The image of Brazilians as carefree, soccer-obsessed, lazy beach-dwellers had been vehemently exposed as a patronizing stereotype. Just 51 percent of the population are now in favor of Brazil hosting the World Cup, with 42 percent opposed, according to an Ibope opinion poll. Another survey, conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, showed the general level of dissatisfaction in the country at 72 percent. Further protests seem inevitable over the next six weeks.
While there will surely be some problems and discomfort for visitors, the most crucial elements -- the stadiums that will play host to the 32 teams and the world’s best players, are likely to be, just about, fit for purpose. Ultimately, FIFA will get its glitzy tournament and its $4 billion in profits.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian people will be left with several largely publicly funded white elephants and a fraction of the improvements to their daily lives that they were promised when the spiritual home of O Jogo Bonito was chosen to play host to the beautiful game for the first time in 64 years.