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Brazil refuses to play ball as spending leaves public behind

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-06-2014 Shrenik Avlani

A 20-foot football rests on top of a pillar in the centre of the town at Ilhabela, a small island 250km from Sao Paulo and accessible only by ferry. In front of that stands a poster announcing an international jazz festival on the island on 12 July, a day before the Fifa World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro.

Matias Borgstrom, a 26-year-old local barber looks at the poster and says: “Jazz fest! That will be great. Better than the World Cup.”

It seems like only those who don’t live in Brazil are excited about the World Cup coming back to the football-crazy country, often called the game’s ‘spiritual home’, for the first time since 1950.

On the streets of Sao Paulo, where Brazil play their opening game on 12 June, there are no buntings or banners of the Brazilian team, and the graffiti the city is famous for is markedly anti-World Cup. The newly built $500 million Arena Corinthians, the stadium which will host the opening game and a semi-final is the only thing that shines for the tournament.

Former Brazilian No. 10 Zico, who supported his country’s World Cup bid, wrote in The Guardian: “I haven’t seen the bunting and painted streets that you might expect to be part of preparations here…I wish I could see a bit more joy among the people.”

The reasons for the anger against the World Cup are well known—billions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent on World Cup-related infrastructure in a country with poor public infrastructure, high levels of poverty and entrenched corruption. The costs of the stadiums alone have overshot by 300% from the original budget to $3.5 billion, which has been sourced from the public money. According to consultancy firm KPMG, Brazil will now have 20 of the world’s most expensive football stadiums.

“Right now, Brazil needs to spend public money on education, infrastructure and healthcare of its own people, not on the World Cup,” said Fernanda Sartoris-Vaz, a Sao Paulo-based conservation and sustainability consultant. “They have spent much more than planned at a time when my country can ill-afford to do so. What really upsets me is that many people in the government have made money even while we struggle with rising costs here.”

Mark Rodriguez, a businessman in Ilhabela who often travels to Sao Paulo on work, said the government had promised the people a much-improved public infrastructure. “Nothing like that has happened. There isn’t even a metro from the airport to the city yet. They made big promises and plans when they brought the World Cup to Brazil seven years ago. They have cut corners at every possible step and we are left with very little infrastructure advancement,” he said.

Lengthy delays in building the stadiums and preparations have rankled as well. Cranes can still be seen at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, while the media centre at Curitiba won’t be ready in time.

“Our preparations have not been the best and people are right to complain about spiralling costs and delayed works,” Zico wrote in The Guardian. “The public purse is funding the World Cup and people are entitled to feel aggrieved. Having said that, I don’t really think anybody is against the World Cup per se, but the problems in preparation have soured the mood.”

Luis Oliviera made light of the situation: “This is the Brazilian way. If we have two months to do something, we sleep for the first month. Then we wake up and realise that we still have a month to go and forget about the task at hand again. And with just two weeks to deadline, we wake up with a jolt and try to do whatever we can to finish the job.”

Over the last week, prominent players including Romario, Pele and Ronaldo have publicly expressed their anger and frustration. Ronaldo, the face of the tournament and a key member of the local organising committee, has blamed the government for the mess, triggering a war of words with President Dilma Rousseff.

All this will feel familiar back in India, where the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi were marred by construction delays and corruption scandals. Except that Delhi is not and has never been the ‘spiritual home’ for any game. Football and Brazil, on the other hand, are inseparable.

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