(WFI) Football writer and author James Corbett travelled to Brazil to gauge the state of preparations for this summer’s FIFA showpiece. Here’s part 2 of his special report for INSIDER, in which he assesses the potential for protests and looks at some of the challenges World Cup visitors will face.
Last year’s Confederations Cup was dominated by unexpected protests in which football and FIFA became focal points for popular discontent.
The protests were sparked by a rise in bus prices – the price rise was quickly cancelled – and escalated from there. Memorably protesters demanded ‘FIFA quality schools, FIFA quality hospitals, FIFA quality transport.’ Several people were killed.
Speaking to a number of those involved in the protests, few insisted that there was anger, more a general disillusion and unhappiness.
Beyond the images presented in tourist brochures of sunshine, beaches and beautiful women, life in Brazil can be hard. It is expensive – in a country with Eastern European levels of earning power, supermarkets charge Swiss prices – something heightened by a regressive tax system that takes half of the salaries of those earning double the monthly minimum wage of 724 Reais ($310), but just a quarter of those earning thirty times the amount.
The malaise is heightened by poor public services, inadequate education provision – despite Brazil spending more per capita as a proportion of GDP than any other nation bar one – and an embedded culture of municipal corruption and graft. There is a sense of helplessness, despite economic data suggesting that living standards are increasing. Maybe that is down to a culture where it is difficult for the poor to rise from the favelas and almost impossible for the middle class to be elevated to the elites.
This social entrenchment was typified in Belo Horizonte, where it turned out that the man in charge of the state’s World Cup delivery programme in the region was the son of the city’s mayor.
“I think there will be less people, but the protestors will be better organised this time,” said William Azalim, who is a member of the Belo Horizonte Popular Committee, which helped organise last year’s protests. On 1 May there is a national congress of the Popular Committees of the 12 host cities being staged in Belo Horizonte at which they are expected to agree on a manifesto and a unified set of demands.
What Can World Cup Visitors Expect?
Some visitors will find day to day life hard too. A social media trend like #sochiproblems is almost certainly going to get an airing come June. English is not widely spoken, even in Rio. There are few hotel chains that will be known to non-Brazilians. Public transport is limited, although Rio’s metro – which serves the south of the city and Maracana – is good and taxis are omnipresent and cheap. Roads are packed.
Crime is an omnipresent concern and most expats have a horrifying litany of such anecdotes. Mobile telephony is stuck in a late-1990s timewarp with inadequate networks and
intermittent 3G; that is if a local sim card is possible to acquire. It took 45 minutes, visits to five separate shops, a 20-minute phone conversation, then a 24-hour wait for me to get started. I was fortunate in having a Portuguese-speaking friend; it would have been impossible without.
Yet what goes on inside a stadium will, I think, be just fine.
At a state championship final at a half-full Maracana between Vasco and Flamengo I encountered a rather soulless bowl – think a stripped down version of the London Olympic Stadium – with average sightlines. But the things that the LOC will be assessed on were good: security, ticketing, transport links, general organisation.
A Copa Libertadores match at a non-World Cup stadium was likewise well organised. It seems as though Brazil – after years of crowd violence – has got a handle on stewarding. This time, unlike South Africa, the LOC is taking charge of stewarding, so the unfortunate scenes there – where police belatedly replaced stewards in several venues after a strike against the private company running security – are unlikely to be repeated.
The extraordinary thing about Brazil at this stage is that there are so few overt signs that the World Cup is coming.
There is hardly any marketing activated yet; within Rio what construction work that seems to be underway is focussed on the enormous Olympic delivery programme.
In Belo Horizonte the bus rapid transport system serving the finals venue was being tested and some stations finished. Eighteen new hotels had been promised there for the finals: six were finished, six were in the final stage of completion and six were either cancelled or would not be ready.
Talk to people on the streets and there are shrugs of ambivalence, empathy with the protestors or disdain at the government and FIFA.
Most fans at this stage, it seems, are concerned primarily with their club’s progress in state championships and the Copa Libertadores.
Falling foul of FIFA in a World Cup year is not new for Brazil.
When it first hosted the World Cup in 1950, so concerned was the far smaller world governing body with the state of progress of the Maracana that it sent Dr Ottorino Barassi, the head of the Italian FA, to supervise the final stages of building. When the final match between Brazil and Uruguay was played in front of a world record crowd of 199,854 on 16 July 1950 the media area and toilets were still not complete.
That match became enshrined in Brazilian history as the “disaster”; not through any calamitous infrastructure failure, but because the national team lost 2-1 to Uruguay.
One suspects that, for most people, this year’s tournament will ultimately be defined by the same criteria.
Your best source of news about the global football business is World Football INSIDER