Nation & World

Brazil’s World Cup transportation handling crowds

Alpha Ndebele had a tight and ambitious schedule. He touched down in Brazil at Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos international airport the morning of the World Cup’s opening match, on June 12. He had to fly to Brasilia the next day, Curitiba the day after, then Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and finally back to Brazil’s financial capital — all in under a week.

While the 31-year-old Chicago resident and avid soccer fan had initial concerns, they were quickly eased. It took him a relatively quick 45 minutes to get out of Guarulhos — including a swift 30 minutes to get through immigration lines, he said.

“Compared to the U.S., it was pretty speedy,” he said, while he rode a local commuter train to the new Itaquerão soccer stadium where the opening match took place.

As the World Cup enters its elimination phase, which commences Saturday with the Round of 16 matches, and slightly more than half of the 64 games completed, many are pleased with how it has gone so far, in particular because Brazilians had strong reservations about staging the event.

Hundreds of thousands of foreigners are here for the tournament. People across the globe from Kolkata in India to the occupied Palestinian territories are riveted, and even the United States has seen a record television viewership audience.

There have been problems, and the concerns Brazilians had about playing host leading up to the tournament remain unaddressed. But for the first few weeks at least, foreign visitors, estimated at approximately 600,000 from more than 180 countries — including a strong U.S. contingent, are breathing a sigh of relief that the logistical problems some feared in the lead-up have not yet materialized, particularly in transportation and lodging.

Ndebele, for example, said he did not encounter any major problems during his stay, and that his flights within Brazil were on time, and that he found the airports organized.

Major concerns over transportation and, in particular, airport readiness in Brazil surfaced in the months prior to the World Cup. Brazil spent billions of dollars on airport renovations yet some went unfinished and many were delayed.

Long travel

That infrastructure was significant because the tournament was spread out over 12 cities, and many teams and their fans faced long travel distances while in Brazil.

The U.S. was particularly impacted as its squad had to travel approximately 6,731 miles inside Brazil just for the initial three group-play matches that concluded Thursday.

That’s a greater distance than any other team. By comparison, Germany had to travel about 3,107 miles and Belgium just 634 miles.

The U.S. was the second most represented country among ticket buyers, according to FIFA, accounting for approximately 200,000 tickets — more than three times that of third-place Argentina.

The distance, combined with strikes — and the threat of strikes — by everyone including Brazil’s police, who handle immigration at international airports, and metro workers in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, caused concern in the weeks leading up to June 12.

Yet, for now, problems seem to be few.

American Johnny Horton, sitting with his compatriots at a bar in the old historic center of Sao Paulo, said that moving around Brazil in his first visit to the country was surprisingly easy.

“We had heard that the airports would be a disaster and that there would be problems, but it has been so smooth,” the 30-year-old from Denver said after visiting Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Florianópolis and Porto Alegre.

He also found that wait times at immigration checkpoints upon arrival were minimal, and said their flights within Brazil were on time.

Data from Brazil’s National Agency of Civil Aviation, known as ANAC, show that from June 12 to June 23, based on evening data, the nationwide daily average index of plane delays was 7.74 percent, and the average index of cancellation was 10.32 percent, which is considered reasonable.

One reason behind the numbers is that overall air traffic in Brazil has dropped during the tournament as Brazilian business people and consumers have cut their travel.

That might not be good news for Brazil’s economy, but it is making things easier for visitors. Movement within cities also appears to be better than expected. Sao Paulo’s and Rio de Janeiro’s metro systems have been operating normally, with no new strikes.

A commuter train that connects Itaquerão stadium to Estação Luz in old downtown Sao Paulo costs the equivalent of $1.35 and takes approximately 20 minutes one way.

That has been a highlight for thousands of visitors, including Ndebele, who took it the first day he arrived in Brazil.

As far as accommodations go, many have been able to circumvent the exorbitant prices Brazilian hotels, especially those in Rio de Janeiro, were charging.

Ndebele used Horton, the Denver resident, said he and his friends stayed at hostels and low-budget accommodations they also found online and paid on average $20-$25 a night.

Some places — like the one they stayed at in Rio de Janeiro —were still under construction, but that did not bother them because, “Our rooms were fine and we were two blocks from Copacabana beach!”

Other tourists have slept at Brazilian bus stations and airport terminals. Many Argentines have slept in their cars.

But not everything has gone smoothly with logistics. On separate occasions, hundreds of Chilean and Argentine fans without tickets broke into Maracana stadium to watch matches.

Rush hour

Sao Paulo traffic — especially when Brazil plays — has been even worse than usual as locals try to rush home. Soccer star Pelé had to listen to the first half of the Brazil-Mexico match on his car radio as he was stuck in traffic, he told Globo.

One main reason for smooth World Cup logistics — including transportation — is that protests by Brazilians have been much smaller and less frequent than they were last year during the Confederations Cup.

More Brazilians seem to be donning their team’s yellow-and-green jerseys during their matches . Armed with big TV screens, plazas in Sao Paulo, such as the Praça Dom José Gaspar, are drawing larger crowds for each Brazil match, perhaps because Brazil has been winning.

However, Brazilians’ concerns off the pitch have not disappeared. The flooding in Recife on Thursday morning showed a stark contrast between locals’ reality and the FIFA-approved soccer stadium, which was unaffected.

Many still view the tournament as an enormous lost opportunity for moving Brazil forward. Attending matches is out of reach for most Brazilians and the tournament is still viewed by many as an event for the elite.

Concerns also continue over a lack of transparency. “FIFA Go Home” signs continue to pop up.

Compounding that: Many poor Brazilians have been displaced from their homes in order for tournament infrastructure to be built. Police tactics toward them also have been aggressive and have drawn criticism from human rights advocates.

Politician Luciana Genro, from the Socialism and Liberal Party known as PSOL in Portuguese, has been critical of the country hosting the World Cup. But she told Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo this week that she had no plans to catalyze more protests.

“This is no longer the moment,” she said. “People want to watch the matches.”