Stadium deaths shine a spotlight on Brazil’s World Cup preparations


SAO PAULO, Brazil — When two workers were crushed by a crane in late November on the construction site of the Sao Paulo stadium due to host the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, the tragedy led to investigations of working conditions and the threat that completion will be delayed until just before the opening whistle.

Two more men died Dec. 14, from a fall and a heart attack, on the site of another soccer stadium under construction, in the Amazonian city of Manaus. Authorities quickly halted parts of the project as attention intensified on Brazil’s rush to finish its flashy temples to futebol.

“So much is being done in a hurry and at the last minute that it puts tremendous pressure on the workers,” said Antonio de Sousa Ramalho, president of the Sao Paulo civil construction workers union and a state legislator. “Of course, rushing always increases the risk of accidents.”

It’s not clear whether the deaths resulted from poor planning or even criminal negligence on the part of the government or construction companies. But they have brought increased attention to the problems with preparations for the international sporting extravaganza in June, which has also been hit by accusations of corruption and wasteful public spending.


Among all 12 of Brazil’s World Cup stadiums, construction or repair costs have exceeded initial estimates, and work was either completed late or is still underway on all but two, according to news reports, which the Ministry of Sports has declined to confirm or deny.

The total expenditure could top $3.4 billion, according to the reports. Besides lives and money, Brazil’s reputation is on the line, as well as the World Cup legacy.

When Brazil promised to host the competition in 12 cities, it hoped to use the stage for a coming-out party of a rising power that occupies a land mass almost twice the size of the European Union. It also hoped that constructing the stadiums, as well as roads and other amenities, would provide the opportunity to update the country’s creaking infrastructure.

Experts say the latter has not happened. Promised urban transit projects and badly needed updates to the country’s airports have been abandoned, meaning it could be tough for fans to get around the country during the event, said Paulo Resende, a logistics expert at Brazil’s Fundacao Dom Cabral business school.

“I believe Brazil will put on a good World Cup. But the problem is that the legacy it will leave, especially in terms of transportation and infrastructure, is not the one the Brazilian people wanted,” Resende said.

At the same time, he added, “the only real risk to Brazil’s image during the event is the possible return of mass protests.”

Last June, protests against a bus fare increase in Sao Paulo quickly tapped into widespread discontent with poor public services, and more than a million people took to the streets, many directing their anger at the spending of taxpayer money on the World Cup. At the opening match of the Confederations Cup, a sort of test run tournament held that month in Brasilia’s shiny new stadium, President Dilma Rousseff was booed by fans.

Brasilia is one of three cities that will be home to expensive new stadiums that are in danger of becoming white elephants: Each will provide far more seating capacity than the city needs, unless later put to use for purposes other than soccer.

The cities — Brasilia, the country’s remote capital; Cuiaba, in Brazil’s agricultural heartland; and Natal, on the northeastern coast — are without major soccer teams. Yet Brasilia built a stadium with more seats — 70,000 — than the one serving Brazil’s largest club team, in Sao Paulo. The stadiums in Natal and Cuiaba will seat more than 40,000 each.

“The stadium will only be ready after a series of delays, protests, a fire, corruption scandals and big price rises,” says Jackeline Silva, vice president of a nonprofit in Cuiaba that promotes the advancement of black women. “And at the same time, important areas like health, education and culture are left without enough investment.”

State authorities are investigating a possible $4.2 million in overcharges for construction of Cuiaba’s stadium. And as early as 2011, a member of a federal investigations body asked why costs for Rio de Janeiro’s stadium, which is to host the World Cup final, cost more than four times as much as similar projects in Ukraine and Poland.

In Brazil, accusations of cost overruns and delays due to corruption are common, though no criminal charges have been filed in construction of the stadiums.

Soccer legend Pele, an honorary ambassador for the 2014 World Cup, initially discouraged Brazilians from protesting, but later acknowledged that he thought corruption has been widespread.

“We can’t knock down all the stadiums and give back all the money unfortunately,” he said. “So let’s take advantage of the time that we have to raise money. Brazil can benefit from large-scale tourism, which can make up for the money that was robbed in the stadiums.”

After the accident at the Sao Paulo stadium site, the projected completion date was pushed back to April. In Manaus, a judge halted above-ground construction when Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, 22, fell 115 feet while installing lights.

On Dec. 18, authorities with the Ministry of Labor announced that construction at the Manaus site had violated 63 of 64 health and safety labor codes.

The rush jobs are the result of a construction culture in Brazil that intentionally uses delaying tactics to earn bigger fees, said Resende, the logistics expert. And oversight often falls by the wayside because of corruption, said Ramalho, of the construction workers union.

“In Brazil, unfortunately, we don’t often have real inspections in the construction industry,” he said. “Too many public employees prefer taking a big payoff instead.”

A representative for the Ministry of Sports said all World Cup construction projects were under scrutiny and that the stadiums would bring benefits in terms of additional jobs and larger crowds at soccer games.

“Budget changes that occur during construction can take place in any project, due to intervening circumstances. Especially in large works,” the representative said.

“The new arenas all have a multi-use conception, with spaces for shows, restaurants, convention centers, fairs and expositions that will allow for other sources of income.”

Bevins is a special correspondent.