A race against time

A race against time

A race against time

With a little over a month left for the World Cup, Brazil is struggling to get the venues ready.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is soon scheduled to declare the new Itaquerao football stadium in Sao Paulo officially open.  A few days later the same upbeat scene will be repeated at the Arena da Baixada in the southern city of Curitiba. And so, perhaps while acknowledging things have been a little bit late (because that’s how things work in South America) all will be judged to have been a great success.

The opening match, on June 12, between Brazil and Croatia will go ahead in a festival atmosphere and all of the doubters who questioned Brazil’s ability to organise, finance and deliver such a big global event will have been proved wrong. But that cosy scenario would hide a multitude of sins and what has been a chaotic and at times disastrous process of preparing to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Indeed, even if the embattled Rousseff does kick a ball from the centre spot and declare the new stadium open for business, FIFA’s secretary general made it clear on a recent tour of the venue that it would not be ready “until the last minute.”  I took a close look at the inside and outside of the stadium last week, which after the World Cup will be home to Corinthians FC, the main club in Brazil’s biggest city.

There are stands still to be finished, access roads to be completed and an awful lot of building work still to do. Sure, the pitch looks good and seemed to stand up well to the rigors of a kick-about match between construction workers (one of the official test events crammed into the last few weeks) but the last of the seating, much of the cabling and the broadcast facilities are all still to be installed.

Sao Paulo is not an isolated case. Half of Brazil’s 12 World Cup stadiums missed the end of year deadline. It was a situation that left FIFA with no choice other than to accept the delays, having previously declared that any venue which went beyond the December 2013 deadline would be dropped from the schedule. Even then, venues like Curitiba and Cuiaba had to be publicly admonished as further delays and wrangling ran well beyond the new year.

Brazil, and the construction companies building the stadiums, have emphatically denied they are cutting corners and taking risks as the last, immovable deadline — kick-off day itself. But a total of eight workers have died during construction at World Cup sites in Brazil, including three at the Sao Paulo venue.

Construction workers, drafted in from home and abroad at haste to help finish the job, spoke about inadequate safety procedures. In some cases, they said they had not been paid for weeks. Luis Fernandes may “only” be Brazil’s deputy sports minister but he is the government official who is, politically at least, charged with overseeing the World Cup project.

He is a career economist who, without question, is passionate about Brazil proving itself on the world stage and has put an awful lot of work and effort into tying to oversee what has been a difficult process from start to finish. When I suggest to him, perhaps provocatively, that the delays and overspends prove that Brazil is not yet ready or mature enough as a nation to hold such big events as the World Cup and Olympic Games he responds by suggesting my question is “paternalistic, even colonialist.”

“It’s not a good plan to try to limit the right to host major sporting events in the world to a small group of rich countries,” said the minister from his office overlooking Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay. “That doesn’t reflect the reality of the world anymore in the 21st century.”

What Fernandes does acknowledge is that the process has damaged Brazil’s relations with FIFA. The “excessive” demands of international sporting organisations do not always go down well with host nations who are ultimately paying for everything. At one stage, when world football’s governing body began to show public concerns about progress in Brazil, its secretary Jerome Valcke said what Brazil needed was a “good kick up the backside.”

At an anti-World Cup protest in Sao Paulo last week, there was hatred and disdain for FIFA and the Brazilian government in almost equal measure. The message coming from the streets was very different to that emanating from the sports ministry. The Nao vai Ter Copa (“There Won’t Be a Cup”) protests are not as big as they once were but there is no question the World Cup and the money being spent on it have thrown up some deep divisions in Brazilian society. Most Brazilians would consider themselves passionate football fans but many are deeply unhappy about the estimated $15 billion of public money that is being spent on the tournament — having initially been assured the vast majority of funding would come from the private sector. FIFA, meanwhile, is widely accused of being a money-making machine, making huge demands of Brazil but leaving little in terms of benefits for the nation. 

The noisy, angry protests will continue throughout the month-long tournament, say those organisers I spoke to in Sao Paulo. But the huge numbers of heavily armed and intimidating riot police carefully shepherding the protesters last week suggested the government is determined these minority protests will not be allowed to disrupt the World Cup in the same way they dominated many of the headlines during last year’s Confederation Cup.

One big reason for all the public anger is the long list of promised infrastructure projects that are going nowhere. There are dozens of late or quietly abandoned schemes across Brazil. They are mainly urban public transport initiatives that were part of what was meant to be a wider World Cup vision — what event organisers these days call the “legacy” dividend.

The monorail in Sao Paulo, the tram network in Salvador, similar projects in Manaus and Cuiaba — the list goes on, all schemes that have now been radically downsized or delayed for months as all efforts go into getting the stadiums, at least, finished on time.

Christopher Gaffney is a visiting professor at the federal Fluminense University and is a specialist in urban planning. “The World Cup has been a missed opportunity for Brazil to materially improve the lives of people in cities,” he tells me as we stand in the choking chaos of downtown Rio de Janeiro — a city that should be reaping the rewards of the World Cup and Olympic Games.

“The World Cup hasn’t been used as an opportunity to do that so Brazil has basically lost the World Cup already.”

One thing that may ultimately save people’s reputations and political careers is if the host nation wins the tournament and in the subsequent wave of euphoria, all is forgiven. Most people in the country are still football mad and there is a buzz building with a month to go before kick-off. But inside the new Itaquerao/Corinthians stadium the scale of what remains to do is clear. The “mission accomplished” banner running alongside the pitch is ridiculously premature and as usual, it will all go down to the wire.