Brazil: unready for kick-off

Football’s first nation should be celebrating the start of the World Cup, but unfinished stadiums, tear-gassed protesters and homeless occupations have instead grabbed headlines

A World Cup in Brazil must have sounded like the perfect fit. Hosting the planet's greatest party in the land of carnival while bringing football back to its spiritual home, the nation that gave us Pelé, Garrincha and the other great artists of the beautiful game. What could possibly go wrong?

Brazil campaigned hard to host this year’s tournament, and in 2007 Fifa granted staging rights for the 20th edition of the sport’s biggest event to the five-time winner of the competition. Now, with less than two weeks to kick-off, it is clear that in fact quite a lot can go wrong.

As the world’s media have descended on the country, unfinished stadiums, tear-gassed protesters and homeless occupations have all grabbed headlines.

But perhaps most worrying for Fifa and the Brazilian government is the lack of excitement in a country that normally spends months looking forward to the tournament. The poor São Paulo district of Itaquera is the sort of neighbourhood that traditionally dresses up for a World Cup, decking its streets in flags and painting the asphalt green, yellow and blue.


But little paint has been daubed on Itaquera's streets so far, even though a new local stadium will host Brazil and Croatia in the opening game, on June 12th.

The reason for the subdued mood can be found by talking to commuters at the local train and bus terminal. Passengers must move through a wall of sound from all the jackhammers. With less than three weeks to go before it receives tens of thousands of fans, the area is still a building site.

Bad weather has forced the morning trains to run late, and people queue in the rain to get into the overcrowded station. A wildcat bus strike earlier in the week brought chaos to Brazil’s biggest city, and commuters are fed up.

“It is just awful what we have to put up with,” says Juliana da Silva, who spends three hours commuting “on a good day”. This mother of two is one of millions of Brazilians growing increasingly angry about the dire state of public transport, schools and hospitals. “The bus service is terrible, my 12-year old daughter still cannot write properly, and when we go to our local hospital there often are not enough doctors.”

Like many Brazilians, she is not against the football tournament but is furious that the government has failed to deliver on the promises it made to justify the huge cost of the event.

When Brazil won the right to host the tournament, most long-term observers familiar with the way the country’s public sector works predicted that the preparations would be marked by incompetence, cronyism and corruption.Many of those fears have turned out to be well founded. Desperately needed improvements to urban transport have been scaled back or cancelled.

In Fortaleza, a large tent will stand in for an unfinished airport terminal. In São Paulo, fans flying from Congonhas airport will see huge concrete columns that were to support a new monorail line linking the airport to the city's subway network; it will not be ready until after the tournament.

A monorail and a bus corridor in the gridlocked jungle city of Manaus have been cancelled altogether.

“All they’ve managed to complete here is a €230 million stadium that will be a white elephant,” says Hamilton Leão, an anti-World Cup activist in Manaus. In contrast to the lavish public spending on the new stadium, authorities have declared a state of emergency as the Amazon’s annual flood swamps the city’s slums.

“Visitors to Manaus for the Cup will find thousands of families living in subhuman conditions on the river shore,” he says.

"Things couldn't have gone more wrong," says Sérgio Rodrigues, a writer, whose latest novel, O Drible (The Feint), examines the country's recent history through the lens of football.

“People are ashamed at the level of incompetence. It is hard to understand when they had so many years to organise the event. I sense a feeling of shame in people.

“It is a pity because this reinforces prejudices about the Brazilian way of doing things. Brazil must use this Cup as a moment to pause and think, because something is deeply wrong. It had everything to be a great party, and the atmosphere is not that of party but rather one of preoccupation and embarrassment.”

Militant mood

A surprise is that many Brazilians – traditionally noted for political apathy – have taken to the streets to protest. The militant mood in part reflects a downturn in the country’s fortunes. Brazil was booming when it won the competition to stage the World Cup. But the boom has stalled, and the country is still struggling with deficits in education, health and housing. Though it has made progress in combating poverty, Brazil remains a world leader in inequality.

Poor pay and high inflation have brought teachers and bus drivers on to the streets. In the host cities of Salvador and Recife, police have gone on strike, leading to looting and a surge in murders. Unions are threatening more industrial action during the tournament.

Organised groups of homeless families have also staged occupations to highlight their plight. About 5,000 families have occupied land near the Itaquera stadium in São Paulo. Living under plastic sheeting on a rain-drenched hill, they are demanding that the authorities buy the land and build social housing on it.

"The new stadium has sparked a property bubble in the region," says Daniel Rodrigo de Carvalho, one of the occupation's organisers. "We cannot afford rents any more but earn too little to qualify for state loans for the government's housing programme. Brazil doesn't need another world title or to spend billions on new stadiums. What we need is spending on public housing."

Mass demonstrations

This surge of militancy can in part be traced back to the mass demonstrations of last June, when a first sight of the sparkling and expensive new stadiums built for Fifa fuelled anger about poor public services. Although the crowds have shrunk in size, this movement continues, now led by a loose nationwide coalition of political groups and social movements.

"There may be less people on the street, but there is still a lot of turmoil after the protests last June, with a huge amount of debate on campus and on social media," says Giovanna Marcelino, of the Juntos, or Together, movement. "We are taking a stand because the way the World Cup is being organised, Brazil is being robbed and problems in health, education and housing are being pushed aside."

The government denies this, saying spending on the World Cup is dwarfed by annual expenditure on health alone. Authorities have sought to portray the protesters as vandals and have gone to great lengths to assure visiting fans that the World Cup will pass off peacefully, with promises of a heavily armoured, high-tech police force. Brazil’s democratically enshrined right to protest risks being infringed.

To try to swing the public behind the tournament, there is now a huge propaganda campaign by the government and Brazil’s main television networks, which are already saturated with ads for the corporate sponsors of Fifa and Brazil’s national team.

Government supporters say some of the criticism is being driven by politics; presidential elections take place in October. After years defending preparations from his position on the tournament's local organising committee, the former striker Ronaldo suddenly said in an interview this month that he is now ashamed of the mess. A few days later he announced his support for the main challenger to President Dilma Rousseff in October.

National unity

Although polls show that most Brazilians doubt there will be much positive legacy from the tournament, many lament that public anger and increasingly nasty politics threaten to overshadow what is traditionally a moment of unity in Brazil.

“My family cheered for the national team back in 1970 despite being opposed to the dictatorship, so why wouldn’t I do the same now in full democracy?” asks Lira Neto, a historian. “Wearing the yellow jersey is just showing support for the team, not the party in power organising the event.”

Today the dictatorship that sought to capitalise on the 1970 triumph is remembered as one of the darkest periods in Brazil’s history; the feats of Pelé, Tostão and Jairzinho are still revered. Despite a long decline in the popularity of the domestic game, the national team and its five world titles still fill many Brazilians with pride. A good start to the tournament by the current squad could see the country’s mood quickly brighten.

In Luiz Felipe Scolari Brazil has a meticulous, driven, World Cup-winning coach. Last year he bristled with anger when foreign journalists asked him about the demonstrations outside the stadiums as his team went about winning the Confederations Cup, a practice run for this year's event.

Felipão knows how much is riding on the next six weeks. A first title on home soil will not magically cure Brazil of all that ails it. That is the labour of several generations. But a sixth World Cup could just help mend the bruised relationship between Brazilians and their national passion.