Lingering problems threaten image of a ‘new Brazil’

RIO DE JANEIRO — After 2 1/2 years of renovations, Rio’s legendary Maracana soccer stadium reopened to much fanfare in late April. Brazilian legends including Ronaldo played in a test match before an audience composed mostly of the workers who rebuilt the 78,000-capacity temple to futebol that will be the flagship venue for next year’s World Cup.

The launch was deemed a success — and allowed officials to breathe a sigh of relief before they begin to worry again about Brazil’s preparations for two of the world’s biggest sporting events, the World Cup in 2014 and the Rio Olympics in 2016.

In the last month, a worker died during construction of a stadium in Sao Paulo, and two other stadiums, including Maracana, missed a deadline set by the international soccer organization, FIFA, to be ready for June’s Confederations Cup tournament.

The problems have been exacerbated by security issues that came to the fore when an American tourist was raped in March on a public van in Rio. And few of the promised — and much-needed — infrastructure improvements touted by the government have materialized.

It is still very possible the World Cup will prove, in the words of Brazil’s Sports Ministry, a “grand party celebrating different cultures and peoples, united by their passion for futebol.” But after more than a year of an economic slump, enough logistical, infrastructure and security problems remain to threaten the image of a “new Brazil” that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva sold the world during bids for the two tournaments.

Lula painted Brazil as an emerging power transformed and modernized after a decade of economic growth and social progress. Only one other country has hosted the World Cup and Olympics back to back: the United States, in 1994 and 1996.


The outcome is fraught with political implications.

“The main risk to President Dilma [Rousseff’s] chances of reelection in 2014 would be a failure in the World Cup,” said Mino Carta, editor of Brazil’s main pro-government publication. “And I don’t mean how our team does, but a failure in the organization of the event — if the global media end up harshly criticizing a country that they used to praise.”

Because the 2016 Olympics will be held in only one city, Rio de Janeiro, analysts think they will be easier to pull off than next year’s World Cup, which will take place in 12 cities across a country roughly twice the size of the European Union.

Brazil must make it possible for fans from around the world to navigate the nation’s creaky airports and transport systems to get to cities from the gaucho deep south to the northern Amazon jungle; find lodging; stay safe; and get to working stadiums on time — all in a very expensive country where few citizens speak English.

“These kinds of events can be very important for a country’s prestige if they go well. Look at the way China really came out as a power when it hosted the Olympics,” said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a political analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington. “But with Brazil, there is still the question as to if things will go wrong and how it could tarnish the country.”

The other promise behind the mega-events, the one made to the Brazilian public, seems to have been set aside so far.

In seeking backing for its bids, the government pledged to carry out badly needed upgrades to the country’s long-suffering infrastructure in ways that would also improve the lives of the Brazilian people and help the country’s growth prospects long after the last fan’s departure.

So far, most of the finished projects are directly related to stadiums.

“I think the World Cup will be a success, at least for foreigners and the Brazilians rich enough to afford to go,” said Alice Macedo, a 24-year-old receptionist and die-hard soccer fan from the humble Maracana neighborhood near the stadium. “They’ve been working in my neighborhood for years and the stadium will be fine. But there are so many other things we need the government to invest in, like health, education and our traffic problems.”

It still takes Macedo at least an hour to get home on buses that travel the eight miles from the rich beach neighborhood where she works, she said, and late-night violence remains commonplace.

In late March, the gang rape of an American woman on a public transportation van shocked Brazil and renewed concerns about safety. Weeks later, the city banned the privately operated vans from glamorous tourist beach zones, where they had long provided an essential mode of transport into Rio’s favelas, or slums, not served by buses.

“The rape on the van highlighted a lot of the deficiencies you still have in Rio,” Castro Neves said. “In addition to the question of violence, if you had proper infrastructure, no one would ever need to take those vans in the first place.”

Crime in Rio has decreased steadily over the last five years, and the government has taken control of many of the slums near tourist areas. It shouldn’t be necessary, Castro Neves said, but if the government really needed to, it could mobilize the military to provide security as it did during a 1992 environmental conference.

Despite periodic bickering with FIFA, the government itself exudes optimism while acknowledging the immense task at hand.

“Our challenge is also our greatest opportunity — to put on sports events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games in a developing country that is the size of a continent,” the Ministry of Sports said in an email reply to questions.

At the Maracana stadium, things went well apart from some unfinished construction, some problems with running water in bathrooms and a small protest outside concerning a local public school slated for demolition.

“They’ll have the World Cup final there near my house, and it will be amazing,” said Macedo, who hopes an end to construction will ease her commute. “But there’s no way I will be able to afford to go to any games myself.”

Bevins is a special correspondent.