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Brazil’s World Cup: The Worrying Starts Early

4 minute read
Andrew Downie / São Paulo

Consternation usually follows celebration when a country wins the right to host the World Cup. It is, after all, the most popular of sports championships and no one wants to be embarrassed throwing one of the biggest parties on the planet. It was Brazil’s turn for anxiety after it won the rights to the 2014 Cup two and a half years ago. Critics were concerned about the country’s ability to build or renovate 12 stadiums in time for the tournament and feared a repeat of the 2007 Rio Pan American Games, also hosted by Brazil, that were last-minute, hugely over-budget and left nary a legacy of improved living conditions for citizens.

Those fears were at the forefront when proposals for the dozen stadiums took forever to get ready. In fact, though building was supposed to have started on all 12 this spring, they only won the approval of FIFA, the game’s governing body, earlier this week.

(See what becomes of Olympic stadiums.)

FIFA has already been worrying out loud. Earlier this month, the organization’s Secretary General Jerome Valcke noted that preparations were so far behind schedule that Brazil is considering reducing the number of host cities from 12 to 8. He lambasted Brazilian soccer bosses for ignoring the agreed deadlines — which the country’s planners have refused to divulge — and said it ran the risk of having to build stadiums at the last minute. “I got a report on the status quo of the Brazilian stadiums. I have to say it is not very nice,” Valcke told reporters. “It is amazing how Brazil is already late. The stadiums are the basic points we need to have a World Cup in Brazil; for the time being, most of the deadlines are already over and we have to work on new deadlines.” Observers say it is surprisingly early for FIFA to be alarmed at the progress of a host country.

(See how a blackout in Brazil raises more questions about the Olympics.)

Brazil should have had a head-start. It was the only candidate to host the 2014 tournament and was a popular choice when selected in October 2007. The home of many of the game’s greatest teams and most outstanding players, it hadn’t been the site of the tournament since 1950 and many fans felt the South American giant deserved to host it again. But while Brazil has continued to produce star after star on the field — it is the only nation to win the World Cup five times — its skills at organization have seemed almost amateurish. Officials waited more than a year after winning the bid to choose the 12 host cities (at least five of which must be ready for the 2013 Confederations Cup). What’s more, it has done little to address the basic infrastructure of airports, ports and highways, which clearly cannot support the expected influx of fans. “We are now seeing the consequences of not doing what we could have done,” said Jose Roberto Bernasconi, president of an architecture and engineering organization that is closely monitoring Brazil’s preparations. “Huge improvements are necessary.”

Bernasconi also said authorities have failed on the most basic transparency measures: refusing to publish details of the bid or a timeline for completion of the project’s many parts. The government took two years just to draw up a responsibility paper outlining who is in charge of specific aspects of the enterprise. That document was eventually presented in January; it declared that the government would spend $7.4 billion on transport, infrastructure and oversight and that Brazilian states and municipalities in charge of hosting matches will spend $3.9 billion on stadiums and facilities.

But in comments echoing those of Valcke, Bernasconi questioned whether anyone will be taken to task over the recurring delays. Of the 12 stadiums, nine will be publicly owned. Those projects will be eligible for low-interest loans of up to 400 million reais (around $215 million) either to build a new structure or remodel an existing one. But no one has applied for a loan yet. Skeptics say both the nine local governments and three privately owned clubs involved in the bid are deliberately holding off, hoping that the government will be forced to jump in at the last minute and give them the money, allowing them to avoid taking out a loan altogether. “They’re waiting to see who’ll blink first,” said Bernasconi. “Everybody wants to go to the party but no one wants to pay for it.”

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