January 10, 2014

Brazil has long way to go before it’s ready for World Cup prime time

FIFA President Sepp Blatter recently slammed the World Cup host for being so far behind in its preparations for soccer’s biggest event.

Sun and soccer usually can be counted on to bring a smile to the face of a Brazilian. But with Brazil’s star turn as FIFA World Cup host less than six months away, some Brazilians aren’t in a very festive mood.

Hosting the World Cup was supposed to be a source of national pride in this soccer-crazed South American country with five World Cup championships to its credit. But with the opening match — Brazil vs. Croatia in Sao Paulo — now a fast-approaching reality, preparations have fallen behind on many fronts.

Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA — soccer’s international governing body — told the Swiss newspaper 24 Heures last week that he isn’t too pleased with what he’s been seeing.

“Brazil has just realized what it means to organize a World Cup,” Blatter said. “They started way too late. It is the country which is the furthest behind since I've been at FIFA and moreover, it's the only one that had so much time — seven years — to prepare itself.”

Blatter’s comments have some questioning whether Brazil should have been awarded the tournament.

“I don’t think this is a good time for Brazil to have the World Cup,” said Flávio Borges, a 33-year-old systems analyst from Rio. “Brazil needs to have political reform and economic reforms, and then maybe one day we could have the World Cup.’’

Frustration over a transit fare hike in the southern city of Porto Alegre in March mushroomed into massive nationwide protests in the middle of the year against corruption and Brazil’s decision to build soccer palaces when it wasn’t providing quality public healthcare, education and decent transportation.

“When we don’t have the basics, we can’t have” a World Cup, Borges said.

During the World Cup final draw ceremony in Bahia in early December, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff promised “this will be the World Cup of all World Cups — a World Cup that no one will ever forget.’’

And she implied it couldn’t be any other way because “ futebol (soccer) is in the heart of each and every Brazilian.’’

Etelvina Lustosa, 34, a tour guide at the landmark Christ the Redeemer statue that towers above Rio, thinks Brazil will be ready — but barely.

“Brazil is the type of country that pushes forward with its belly and gets things done at the last minute,’’ she said, thrusting out her stomach to emphasize her point. “Brazil is a very rich country but it lacks management.’’

She’s impatient with public transit that doesn’t reach neighborhoods where many people live, trash in the streets, lack of progress on preventing mudslides and flooding when it rains heavily and traffic snarls that make it hard to get around.

“I see a lot of frustrated tourists,’’ who sometimes wait in line for up to four hours to see the Christ statue, she said. The problem, according to Lustosa, is cars that are allowed to park haphazardly along the narrow road leading to the statue so tour vans can’t get through.

But she said she’s hopeful that one thing will come shining through during the World Cup: “The joy and goodwill of the Brazilian people toward receiving tourists.”

Meanwhile, the country has some daunting problems and delays to overcome before it is ready for World Cup prime time from June 12 to July 13.

Stadiums in six of the 12 cities that will host matches missed a Dec. 31 FIFA deadline for completion. After a crane being used to assemble the stadium roof at the new Corinthians Stadium in Sao Paulo toppled, killing two workers in November, FIFA set a new deadline of late February for delivery of the arena. But some analysts expect it will miss that date, too.

Work also was briefly suspended in December on the Amazonian arena in the city of Manaus, where the U.S. team will play, after a fatal construction accident. A workers’ union contends there have been dozens of accidents as laborers race to finish the behind-schedule stadium. Omar Aziz, governor of Amazonas, denied workers are being forced to rush to meet deadlines and said safety must come first at the site.

A13-mile light rail system that was supposed to play a key role in transporting fans in the World Cup city of Cuiabá in the western state of Mato Grosso also apparently won’t be ready until months after the last soccer ball is kicked.

And plans to renovate a number of Brazilian airports before hundreds of thousands of World Cup fans descend on Brazil are still plans in many cases. That will complicate expeditiously getting fans from World Cup city to another in a continent-sized country with a spotty national road system.

Brazil’s Minister of Transports César Borges recently said he expects renovations at five airports to be completed or be near completion in 2016 when Rio de Janeiro will host the Olympic Games. To handle World Cup fans, he said flights into and out of host cities would be increased.

Many of those fans will be from the United States. So far, about 85,000 tickets have been bought by fans in the U.S. — more than from any other country besides Brazil, said Liliana Ayalde, U.S. ambassador to Brazil.

Ayalde, who’s monitoring the construction, told the Miami Herald that she believes Brazil will be ready.

“We’re watching it but we’re observers on this,” Ayalde said. “There is a concern but at the end, the Brazilians will get it done. FIFA is on top of them.”

Protests are also expected to be part of the landscape during the month-long soccer fest. That’s prompted Brazil to rework its security plan, which now includes a special police battalion tasked with controlling violent demonstrations during the World Cup and other large events.

A 10,000-strong elite federal security force also will help control demonstrations.

Andrei Rodrigues, special secretary for safety and security of major events in the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, said that in the wake of the protests, intelligence activities had been stepped up.

“These intelligence activities already exist within each state, but the Ministry of Justice is intensifying this process with a focus on preventing violence in the case of demonstrations,’’ he said.

FIFA’s Blatter said he’s an optimist, so he doesn’t think the social protests will have too much impact on the World Cup. “I’m not worried. But we know that there will be more demonstrations, protests,’’ he said.

Rio trash collector Paulo Roberto Barros says police sometimes uncover one area to cover another — a phenomenon he’s recently witnessed in the Lapa entertainment district, which is frequented by tourists. After several high-profile crimes in Lapa, he said, the police presence has picked up — even as drug trafficking wars continue in poor neighborhoods on the fringes of the city.

Still, Barros said Brazil has the ability to come out on top during the World Cup. “This is a marvelous country,’’ he said. “Did you see our New Year’s celebration?” On New Year’s Eve, an estimated 2.3 million people converged on Copacabana Beach for an extravaganza that lit up the sky with 24 tons of fireworks.

“The Brazilian people get excited about hosting other people,” Barros said. “There will be nothing grave here.’’

Alan Gandelman, a financial executive who lives just outside Rio in Barra da Tijuca, said he expects “Brazil will deliver — some how.

“Some people are pessimistic because they were too optimistic before,’’ he said. “It’s always like this. When it seems everything is lost, something positive pops up.”

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