Protests Dampen World Cup Fever in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO – It seemed like “a good deal” at the time, but then things changed. That description of the 2006 purchase of a U.S. refinery, one of the oil industry scandals hanging over the Brazilian government’s head, could also apply to attitudes towards the FIFA World Cup.

In 2007, the fact that Brazil was chosen to host the 2014 International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) global championship triggered a sense of national euphoria. The mega sporting event would crown the economic ascent of this emerging power, which has won the most World Cups – five out of 18.

But now, instead of planning welcome parties for the Jun. 12-Jul. 13 tournament, Brazilians are taking to the streets in protests that are blocking traffic and bringing cities to a halt, holding strikes to demand wage hikes, and complaining about corruption and rights violations during the public works to prepare for the global event.

The country of football and joy is turning its back on its stereotype.

In Rio de Janeiro, the few streets decorated in green and yellow – the colors of the national team – contrast with the celebrations and sense of anticipation ahead of previous World Cups. The enthusiasm has been dampened just when Brazil is hosting the world’s biggest single-sport event.

The indignation of Brazilians erupted in June 2013, with surprising and often violent protests against the poor performance of the health and education systems, chaotic traffic, corruption, and the enormous amounts being spent on preparations for the World Cup.

Worried about further unrest, the government has ordered the deployment of 157,000 police and military troops to guarantee security during the games that will be held in 12 cities in this enormous country of nearly 200 million people.

But the declining excitement over football “is a tendency that has been seen in the last three World Cups,” said Paulo Santos, who has worked as a barber for 40 years in a lower middle-class Rio de Janeiro neighborhood and hears the views of hundreds of clients, in a kind of ongoing informal opinion poll.

Hosting the World Cup should have revived the passion of fans.

But “they’re holding the party with other people’s money – ours,” complained Santos, reflecting the widespread sensation that the whole exercise has been marked by corruption, the squandering of public funds and FIFA’s greed.

Surveys reflect this view. In February, only 52 percent of those interviewed by the Datafolha polling institute were in favor of organizing the World Cup, down from 79 percent in 2008.

The most recent poll, limited to the southern city of São Paulo, found that 45 percent of respondents were in favor and 43 percent were against, while the rest said they didn’t care. But worse than that was the fact that an overwhelming majority, 76 percent, said they thought the country wasn’t prepared to host the marathon of 64 games among 32 national teams.

Many of the projects planned, especially the urban transport works, were not carried out or were left incomplete. Some of the 12 stadiums were not finished until the last minute, without the finishing touches and without being tested. Half of them lack wireless Internet connection.

Delays in infrastructure works are a tradition in Brazil. The same thing happened in the first World Cup, held in Brazil in 1950. The main stadium, Maracaná in Rio de Janeiro, was inaugurated only a few days before the event, in the midst of a muddy construction site littered with left-over materials.

It was the world’s largest stadium. Designed for 155,250 spectators, it held a crowd of over 200,000 in the final match. Now, remodeled and sumptuous, it holds just under 74,700 people.

But the current megalomania is different. Since the last decade, Brazil has been caught up in a frenzy of building hydropower dams, railways, ports, highways and freeways, in an attempt to overcome the infrastructure deficit accumulated over the preceding two decades.

Most of the major projects are years behind. The main railway, a 4,155-km north-south route, has been under construction for 27 years, with only one-third of the rails installed.

But no delays are possible in the case of the preparations for the World Cup in 12 cities and for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The looming deadlines may have been a factor in some of the accidents that have caused the deaths of nine workers in the World Cup stadiums, seven of them employed by subcontractors.