I was in Brazil a few of weeks ago. This trip gave me a chance to learn what soccer fans will experience when they will be in Brazil in a few days from now, when the beautiful game will be played under the FIFA World Cup organization. I could still see World Cup related construction while I was in Brazil, and that was three weeks before the start of the Cup. The local media was speculating that the 12 stadiums to be used during the Cup were likely not going to be completely finished by the time the games started. But that is far from the main problem. I learned about the Brazilian people’s grim mood toward hosting the World Cup. Some are protesting about the exorbitant expenses involved in building stadiums and infrastructure. Others are simply embarrassed that Brazil is not completely ready for the cup. Others aim their complaints toward FIFA and their high standards and requirements. From these issues we may learn what are possible game changers in how World Cups will be played in the future, especially in the criteria for selecting the locations to host this most important cup of the most popular sport on earth.
My adventure, like that of American tourists going to Brazil, started when I had to face the bureaucracy at the Brazilian Consulate in San Francisco. In my case I had to renew my Brazilian passport and I had to be onsite for that (if you do it via mail a Brazilian passport will only be valid for three years). I chose a Wednesday in mid April to go to San Francisco to do this job, booked a flight leaving at 5:30 am from Eugene arriving in San Francisco at 7:20am, returning to Eugene the same day.
I arrived at the consulate at about 8am, the consulate opened at 9am and I was number 15 on the line. But soon there were some more than 200 people there, all American tourists lining up to get their travel visa to be in Brazil for the Cup.
While waiting for services I had a chance to talk to several tourists. They told me consulates across the United States were struggling to arrange appointments for the required visa interviews due to high volume of visa requests and/or lack of staff at the consulates. At that point in April, interviews were being scheduled for June, meaning many people who started the process at that time would not get their visas in time for the world cup. To resolve this situation the Brazilian Consulates dedicated Wednesdays for processing visas without appointments, on a first-come-first-served basis.
That’s Brazil: it gives you the impression things are a mess, and they potentially are. But in the end it all comes together although sometimes with delays and adaptations to the process. One could hope the same goes for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil!
With my brand new passport in hands I got on my United flight to Porto Alegre, my final destination in Brazil, and one of the 12 cities hosting games for the world cup. My flight went to São Paulo first where I connected with the domestic carrier TAM which took me to Porto Alegre.
Arriving in São Paulo is quite the experience. If you have never been there before you will be amazed by the sea of residential high-rises going into the horizon. Makes for a densely populated area. Traffic jams can be incredible. It is not as bad on the other 11 towns hosting games, just because they are not quite as large as São Paulo. But you can count on traffic being an issue everywhere in Brazil. To solve potential traffic problems in these 12 cities, Brazilian national and local governments have decreed optional holidays for most government workers on the days when games will be played, in the hopes it will reduce traffic congestion in these towns.
The Guarulhos (GRU) International Airport in São Paulo will play a key role taking people to the different cities where the games will be played. It is Brazil’s main air transportation hub.
GRU was still under renovation when I was there in November last year. And it was not operational yet three weeks ago. My flight taxied to a point on the tarmac and stopped far from a gate. Passengers were transported to the main terminal by bus.
The construction of the new terminal was going to be completed by May 25th, just a few weeks before the main influx of tourists starts. This should resolve the problem of not enough gates for planes at this airport.
Construction at Porto Alegre’s airport, for example, which included the extension of its single runway, never left the planning stages after much talk and discussion about removing the families in the houses which are illegally built, mind you, at the end of the current runway. And then there was the installation of Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) in Porto Alegre which were delayed.
Porto Alegre’s airport is frequently immersed on a thick fog during the winter days, and when that happens, it closes. And winter weather is just around the corner, when the cup is about to start. The ILS was installed a couple of weeks ago in Porto Alegre, but due to specific red tape and technical issues yet to be resolved with ANAC (Brazilian equivalent of the FAA) the equipment is not yet operational. Hopefully it will be fully operational and preventing flight cancellations when the first of the five games will be played in Porto Alegre on a few days from now, in June 15th.
On the other hand, other services were already operational both in São Paulo’s and in Porto Alegre’s airports. One of the annoying issues I’ve experienced in the past on my connecting flights in Brazilian airports was the lack of internet access for non-residents. There are a few pay-by-the-hour wireless services available at the airports, but they are expensive and require a convoluted payment process to obtain access, something only residents can unravel, if you have the right card, that is. But now you get free wireless in São Paulo’s Guarulhos (GRU) and in Porto Alegre’s Salgado Filho (POA) airports. I hope this service will continue after the World Cup is over.
I was in São Paulo for a few hours to connect from the United flight to the TAM flight to Porto Alegre. An interesting touch for the cup, TAM’s traditional red carpet service has been changed to a soccer pitch themed green carpet.
One more thing before I take you to Porto Alegre: I saw this Gol plane at a gate (photo bellow), painted with the colors of the Brazilian national soccer team, to celebrate the team’s Confederations’ Cup win of last year.
The flight to Porto Alegre was uneventful and I’m glad it lasts just a bit more than an hour from São Paulo. Mainly because the seats on TAM planes (but perhaps also other Brazilian airliners?) are really tight. No leg room even for someone like me, of average height (5’10” with 30.5 inseam)!
By the way, the guy on a grey suite a few rows ahead of me is Paulo Paixão, the director for physical development of the players of the Brazilian National soccer team. He has worked with Felipão (Big Phil) since the time Felipão coached Grêmio, my soccer team, and Paulo lives in Porto Alegre. He must be a very busy man these final days before the cup, getting the players ready for the first game.
Porto Alegre is located on a confluence of several rivers, building to a large mass of water which eventually becomes the Lagoa dos Patos (Patos Lake), and from there this water connects to the south Atlantic Ocean down south close to the border between Brazil and Uruguay.
Another view of Porto Alegre during approach for landing.
Porto Alegre will host five games during the cup (four in the phase of groups).
- France vs. Honduras, Jun 15, 2014
- Australia vs. Netherlands, Jun 18, 2014
- South Korea vs. Algeria, Jun 22, 2014
- Nigeria vs. Argentina, Jun 25, 2014
- 1st of group G vs. 2nd of group H, Jun 30, 2014
All these games will be played in Sport Club Internacional’s stadium, called the Beira Rio. The stadium, which went through a massive renovation to comply to FIFA’s standards, was not completed yet when I was there.
To me this stadium looks like a red and white circus tent. Just let’s hope it doesn’t become a clowns’ event during the cup. After the cup, well, I don’t mind if it becomes a real circus full of clowns – after all, this stadium belongs to Internacional, the archenemy of my soccer team, Grêmio Football Porto Alegre. Both teams are based on Porto Alegre.
By the way, Grêmio has a brand new stadium, built to FIFA’s standards. It is larger and accommodates a few thousand more spectators than Beira Rio. Its construction started after Beira Rio was chosen by FIFA as the stadium for Porto Alegre’s matches. Grêmio’s Arena was built with private moneys, and it has been concluded and has been fully operational for more than a year already.
Grêmio’s Arena is probably the only FIFA standards soccer stadium in Brazil today that is not under some form of construction. Even the stadium where the inaugural match will take place, in São Paulo on June 12, two days from now, is not completely ready. Grêmio’s arena will not be used for official FIFA World Cup matches, it will only be used as a practice pitch for the national teams playing in Porto Alegre during the cup.
While I was in Porto Alegre, as is my tradition, I made sure I went to Grêmio’s Arena to see my soccer team play. And I was not disappointed when Grêmio beat Fluminense 1-nil.
That was a long detour from the main point of this post, I get carried away when I talk about my Porto Alegre, my home town. The bottom line is that Brazil is not completely ready for the FIFA World Cup which will start when Brazil and Croatia play the inaugural match on June 12th, in São Paulo. By the look of things, construction in several stadiums needed to be halted, or was completed one way or another. And even if stadiums get finished, Brazilian news indicate surrounding areas will remain under construction, including roadways, parking structures, and several other aspects of human mobility around the various stadiums.
The problems with Brazil hosting the FIFA World Cup, the most prestigious sports event in the world, are not restricted to delayed construction issues. The problems started in 2007 when Brazil was announced the host for the 2014 World Cup.
First of all, there was no consensus among Brazilians whether hosting this event was a good idea or not. Most Brazilians, it turns out, knowing the expenses involved in getting their country ready for such an event, were against the idea of Brazil hosting the cup. And today, the percent of Brazilians dissatisfied with the idea of hosting the cup has reached an all time high of about 70% according to a recent poll. At times, this dissatisfaction has been demonstrated with quite an amount of aggression by segments of the population.
Hosting a FIFA event, or the Olympic Games for that matter, is about elevating the prestige of a country, or city, it also is about self promotion of politicians involved in the process. Very rarely it is a sound financial investment. Look at the Winter Games of 2022. No cities are lining up for a bid to host these games, especially after Sochi’s experience. All because events such as these require massive investments. I believe this is how the 2014 World Cup will be the game changer for FIFA, and maybe for the Olympic Committee as well, considering Rio 2016 is only two years away, and the same issues being discussed for the World Cup in Brazil also apply to Rio de Janeiro and its hosting of the Olympic Games in 2016.
So what is the background on the specifics of Brazil? First of all, Lula (Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva) was President of Brazil in 2007 when Brazil bid to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup. His presidency was marred by corruption scandals and expensive populist policies generating large domestic spending and debt. But the world economy was growing at a fast pace during those days and Brazil was rated, together with Russia, India and China as the motors of the world economic growth. The BRIC countries. Brazil’s boom growth was closely linked to China’s growth. Brazil’s growth was mostly based on agriculture commodity sales to hungry Chinese, and minerals and steel products to a growing Chinese industry.
Of the BRIC countries, only China was the actual motor of world’s economic growth, as it turned out. Eventually that growth tapered off, as a domino effect starting with the real estate bubble in the United States and what followed as a consequence with the world economy. By that time, Brazil had already committed to hosting the cup, there was no going back. But not only that, FIFA had requested 8-10 stadiums for the cup. Brazil offered 12. Why? You have to ask that question to President Lula. But what most Brazilians seem to indicate is that it was for his and his party’s political gain, investing in regions where soccer is seldom played, but where the President and his party needed to gather support, these Brazilians say.
But the times changed, and with the economic downturn, what seemed like a bad idea became a tragic decision, and it would have to be shouldered by many Brazilians and their tax money. And likely this has turned into a political loss to Lula’s party on the upcoming presidential elections (November 2014). It has been a large investment, with federal funds that many Brazilians claim could have been invested on more important initiatives such as health and education. If Lula had stayed with the 8 stadiums FIFA required and the problems would have been somewhat more contained. But he was riding the wave of success, had political cache to spare, so he signed something even then he could possibly not deliver without sacrificing some popular programs. Four extra stadiums is quite an investment. Especially when some of these stadiums are likely to never fill up to capacity, perhaps not even during this World Cup.
As a result, seven years later, and a troubled Brazilian economy, there has been a lot of push back from the Brazilian people on matters associated with Brazil hosting the cup. When I was in Brazil media channels were reporting worker groups and unions threatening strikes during the cup, including public transportation workers, and even airline and airport ground crews. Negotiations haven taken place, and with that more problems have been pushed under the proverbial rug for an economy showing the stress of inflation and with the Federal Government’s weakened political leverage to adopt necessary austere measures. These austere measures, by the way, are necessary and will not be brought up until after the cup. Dilma Rousseff, the current president and successor of Lula has the work cut out for her. And then there are the November elections for president. When the cup is over, and the election campaign should be in full swing by July, we will learn more about the Brazilian economic reality.
Something else, I was for example amazed that local stores and businesses were not building the world cup into their marketing campaigns as they’ve always done in the past. No green and yellow windows at stores on the malls. The push back from the Brazilian people is so intense, it seems, business fear being associated with the cup.
On the other side of the argument, there were Government campaigns being aired on the media, at prime time, specifically targeting to influence the hearts and minds of the Brazilian people. The gist of the campaign was to suggest the future success of Brazil would be hinging on a successful hosting of the World Cup. And that is true, I would argue this is a reasonable argument at this point. So, the narrator, as the video shows beautiful manicured images of the stadiums, hotels, airports, read something like this: “let’s pitch in for a good effort and make this the cup of all cups. Let’s make it happen. Now is the time to be nice with the tourists, make it a pleasant experience for all, show the world we can deliver.”
Also, three weeks ago Dilma Rousseff (same political party as that of Lula) invited the most prominent and influential Brazilian journalists to a dinner event in Brasilia. During the event it is believed she argued that now was the time for them to stop criticizing the World Cup, it is time to use their influence to prevent a larger embarrassment. She probably asked the journalists to stop instigating the public against the Cup and also against the government.
It should be noted that in the presidential elections this coming November, Dilma, who is in her first term, is likely a candidate for the next round this November. Her popularity is at its lowest, though. And the World Cup becomes from something that was in its inception to boost her re-election chances to something that is likely to undermine her chances. And that of her party as well. There is a lot at stake here, hinging on the success of the world cup.
Therefore, what is the potential game changer? What are we learning from the Brazilian experience with hosting the World Cup so far?
We learned that hosting a FIFA’s World Cup is not necessarily an emerging country’s sound financial and political investment. That’s something that we actually learned from South Africa in 2010. But by then it was already too late for Brazil. But it may not be too late for future cups and other emerging countries that may be a candidate to host the cup several years from now. Most importantly, FIFA should stay away from countries where decisions to host the cup are politically motivated, and which require massive infrastructure investments to meet FIFA’s requirements.
It is a lot safer for FIFA to seek developed and politically mature countries, where the existing infrastructure is sufficient to host the cup and the population is in favor of hosting the event. Or perhaps FIFA should seek rich and well established dictatorships where political issues will not emerge. By the way, where is the next cup?
The same should apply to the Olympic Games, except that these are scaled down to cities. Rio 2016 is probably under a lot of scrutiny right at this time. There have been rumors, likely unfounded, that London, the most recent Olympic Games host where most structures should still in place, would be ready to take over should Rio fails. But more interesting is how cities are no lining up to host the 2022 Winter Games, after they learn the expense Sochi went through to prepare for and host the games, and how it still was below acceptable standards. A perception that probably did not boost that city’s tourism industry after the games.
Having said all of this, I sincerely wish the 214 World Cup in Brazil is a tremendous success. But I also wish that lessons are learned by all: the Brazilian people, the Brazilian government, and FIFA. There may be more to this than I really know, so please accept my writings as, well, thoughts…
To divert from all of this negativity, here is a nice video of Porto Alegre, prepared based on FIFA standards (let’s interject humor). There is something good coming out of this: by promoting my lovely home town into a potential world recognized town. The video makes it look better than it is. Maybe. I’m biased though, as I really like this town.
Finally, in Brazil there is a popular expression that is often mentioned when things work out well after they’ve been in a precarious situation, or to explain why Brazil is spared of earthquakes, active volcanoes, typhoons, hurricanes and other natural disasters. People say “God is Brazilian”. I was listening to a Brazilian radio station the other day, and someone was being interviewed about the cup and this person said: “Let’s hope God is really Brazilian and the cup will be fine.”
Yes, let’s hope for that!
I wish a successful world cup, safe for all spectators, Brazilians and foreigners alike. And may the best team win!