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SAO PAULO, Brazil - Brazil playing host to the planet’s biggest single sporting tournament should be the country's moment to shine.
Instead, the spotlight is exposing major problems on the eve of soccer's World Cup.
Brazil will welcome the players and fans to unfinished airports, drive them past uncompleted transport systems, through streets that have been clogged with rioters protesting the cost of the tournament and into stadiums that have cost lives to build and haven’t all been finished.
Opinion polls suggest more than half the country’s population wish their homeland had never been awarded the tournament and that six in 10 people believe hosting the cup will be bad for Brazil.
Soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, isn’t impressed either. Its two top officials have described preparations as the worst ever and dealing with Brazilian authorities as “hell.”
What went wrong? Brazil simply over-promised after it was chosen in 2007 and has now under-delivered.
- Workers are still scrambling to finish five of the 12 stadiums that will play host to matches. The stadium in Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo — which will stage the opening match on Thursday — was supposed to have been finished last December. It’s still being readied, and the planned roof won’t be finished on time. Temporary seats for 20,000 fans have now received safety clearance from firefighters; they have never been tested during a full game.
- Three workers died building the stadium. A worker was killed Monday in an accident on the prestigious monorail project in Sao Paulo, which was due to be done in time for the World Cup. In all, eight men have died building the 12 grounds.
- Organizers have shelved much of the infrastructure they promised, from roads to a high-speed train between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Just five of the 35 planned urban-mobility rail schemes are complete. Fans will use buses and taxis to get to city centers and games, not the promised metro lines.
- In Natal, where the U.S. team will play its first game on Monday, half the infrastructure projects planned for the cup weren’t even started.
- Brazil’s president opened a new terminal at Sao Paulo airport to great fanfare this month, but it will handle only a fraction of the airlines originally scheduled to land there. The new airport terminal promised in Fortaleza has been delayed until 2017.
This is already the most expensive World Cup in history, estimated at $11.5 billion. The stadiums cost twice as much as the last two tournaments combined. Brazil now boasts 10 of the world’s 20 costliest soccer arenas, according to consultancy KPMG.
Why? Well, not because of their world-class facilities. Look for the answer instead in the millions suspected to have been skimmed off by developers, or the millions more that appear to have simply disappeared.
The costliest of these grounds is in Brasilia, a stadium that has cost $900 million, triple the original estimate, making it the second most expensive stadium in the world. It will be a white elephant in a month’s time, as the city doesn’t even have a professional major league team.
Add to that the stadium in the jungle city of Manaus. It now has a 39,000-seat ground, but its biggest local games barely draw 1,500 fans.
People are furious at the cost of it all, and at the waste.
Brazil has suffered the largest wave of social protest in its history, plagued by riots, demonstrations and strikes over the price of the tournament. Teachers, bus drivers, even police officers have marched in anger recently. About $3.6 billion of taxpayer money has gone into the stadiums, but people are angry at the appalling public services most Brazilians still endure; poor hospitals, schools and public transport.
Soccer legend Romario, now a congressman, has called the World Cup “the biggest heist in the history of Brazil.”
And then there’s all the normal violence. Brazil has some of the most violent cities on Earth. It tops the world for soccer crowd fatalities, with 30 deaths in 2013. The country is braced for trouble in the coming month, especially as its bitter rival Argentina has a team that may snatch the trophy from under the noses of the hosts and fans who rank among the most violent in South America.
Brazil has committed around 170,000 troops and police across the 12 host cities to keep the peace.
To counter the bad publicity, Brazil’s government argues that the airports and rail lines will eventually be finished, that billions will flood into the country’s economy as a result of soccer tourism and that a third of a million jobs have been created by the tournament. But most of the jobs are temporary, the tourist figures ignore those who will stay away because of the World Cup, and Brazil can’t even guarantee the rail and airport facilities will be ready for its next big event, the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Preparations for that have been described by another world sports body, the IOC, as the worst ever.
There are a few other problems. Sao Paulo has just suffered its worst ever traffic jam, with 214 miles of vehicles slowed to a standstill on May 23. The subway strike that caused it has now been called off but may resume on Thursday, in time for the first game.
Worse yet, there is an outbreak of the deadly dengue fever in Manaus, where England plays Italy this coming Saturday.
Brazil likes to think of itself as “o pais do futebol,” the football country. It has won a record five World Cups. Its football style is revered around the globe.
The government has been desperately trying to whip up enthusiasm for what’s to come, urging Brazilians to stage the “copa das Copas,” the greatest World Cup of all time. More likely, the country will scrape by.
Or worse, the tournament will go the way of the original World Cup trophy, the Jules Rimet, which disappeared in Rio and was probably melted down for gold — a golden opportunity will be missed, never to be recovered.