Brazilians, angry at cost, in a sour mood as World Cup opens

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 11, 2014 

Brazil Soccer WCup

A girl selling bottled water to passing commuters is draped by a large representation of Brazil's national flag, near the Arena Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil, Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

FERNANDO LLANO — AP

— On the eve of international soccer’s once-every-four-years celebration of the world’s most popular sport, 65-year-old Caetano De Carvalho is in a prime location, or so it would seem. This working-class suburb of Sao Paulo, where he has lived for 22 years, offers an easy walk to the modern new soccer stadium where the World Cup’s opening match between host Brazil and Croatia will be played Thursday.

Like many Brazilians, he worships the sport and relishes any chance to talk about it. “You know, I came out of the womb a Corinthians fan,” he said, referring to one of Brazil’s most popular professional teams, which will make the new stadium its home when the World Cup ends.

Yet De Carvalho’s mood is sour. He admits he won’t be attending any World Cup matches. “Someone is going to have to pay for this,” he complained, meaning all the construction that went into hosting the tournament. “We are going to have pay for the stadiums.” By “we,” he means Brazilian taxpayers.

Brazil has done more perhaps than any other nation to feed international soccer’s popularity. It’s sent its best players to Europe’s top professional leagues, where their frenetic play-making helps drive interest in places as far off as Bangladesh and China. So many here saw it as just when world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, in 2007 awarded Brazil the rights to host this year’s World Cup.

Now, however, the euphoria is gone, as Brazilians begin to think that the country has missed a huge opportunity to address its most serious problems. “If you go two kilometers beyond the stadium, you’ll see all the needs Brazil has,” De Carvalho said, mentioning in particular inadequate schools and health care.

He is not alone. A Pew Research poll released earlier this month found that 61 percent of Brazilians think hosting the World Cup is bad for Brazil, believing that it takes money away from schools, health care and other public services. A survey in April by Brazilian pollster Datafolha found support for hosting the World Cup was just 48 percent, down from 79 percent in November 2008.

Driving that dismay is the cost of hosting the tournament _ teams from 32 countries playing 64 games around the country. Brazil is spending $11.6 billion on stadiums in 12 cities and hundreds of other projects. Except for $2 billion, it is all publicly financed. American geographer Christopher Gaffney, who studies soccer and its impact on society, says the cost of Brazil’s World Cup is the highest ever _ $6,023 per seat, up from $5,299 for the 2010 cup in South Africa.

“This entire project is to benefit the Brazilian elite. That comes at the cost of the poor,” said Gaffney.

Adding to the ire is a lack of information on who is making money off the spectacle. “Contracts were never made available,” said Gil Castello Branco, the head of Contas Abertas, or Open Accounts, a group that promotes transparency.

The entire organization of the World Cup, Branco said, “is a mystery, and this generates a lot of suspicion” among the public.

Indeed, Brazilians have mostly scorn for FIFA, the Geneva-based organization that runs the games. “They are a mafia,” said De Carvalho. “They do whatever they want.”

FIFA head Sepp Blatter proved that point this week with his stay at one of Sao Paulo’s most exclusive hotels, accompanied by a security detail that many heads of state would envy. Local news media reported that when he left the hotel this week, officials closed off the entire street, denying passage to an ambulance.

“Total arrogance” is how 37-year-old Ana Paula Manca, also a Vila Carmosina resident, describes FIFA, adding, “They don’t have the least concern for the country.”

Many Brazilians also feel let down by their government, which pledged in 2007 that the cost of the stadiums and other improvements would be privately financed. “There will not be a single cent of public money,” said Orlando Silva Junior, then the minister of sports.

Not only did that turn out to be untrue, but many projects that would have improved the lives of average Brazilians remain unfinished, like the monorail that is supposed to connect the Sao Paulo airport with the city’s extensive subway system.

Making matters worse, entire neighborhoods of mostly poor people were forced from their homes to make way for the projects, including scores of residents of an area that was cleared to make way for a parking lot at the legendary Maracana Stadium, where the tournament’s championship game will be played July 13.

The biggest irony, for some, is the possibility that the World Cup will in the end jeopardize soccer in Brazil, where many teams, especially smaller ones, are already struggling financially.

After expensive stadium renovations, “the public that used to go to games at Maracana is not the same public that now attends games at Maracana,” said Branco of Contas Abertas. “Today they cannot afford to buy tickets.”

Corinthians’ fans like Caetano De Carvalho may also face difficulty going to their new stadium.

“I don’t know if Brazilians have the ability to go to three to four games per month paying two to three times more in price,” said Rafael Plastina, a Sao Paulo-based sports consultant.

That will change the view of soccer as every man’s sport as emblematic teams like Corinthians “ have to bring new people into the stadium, people with more financial acquisitive power," he said.

“I don’t have any doubt about that,” Plastina said.

Sreeharsha is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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