x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Order and progress none too apparent in Brazil

Concerns over whether Brazil will be ready to host the 2014 World Cup in a little over three years' time are well-founded.

Internacional fans celebrate their side’s 3-0 Copa Libertadores victory against Bolivian side Club Jorge Wilstermann on March 30. Many in Brazil expect the planned refurbishment of the country’s stadia to go down to the wire before the tournament starts in June 2014.
Internacional fans celebrate their side’s 3-0 Copa Libertadores victory against Bolivian side Club Jorge Wilstermann on March 30. Many in Brazil expect the planned refurbishment of the country’s stadia to go down to the wire before the tournament starts in June 2014.

A handsome police horse nickers nervously as his rider surveys the busy scene ahead. It is 9pm on a Wednesday night in Porto Alegre, a city of 2.5 million people in the south of Brazil, near Uruguay and Argentina, and the fifth-biggest in Brazil. Local boys who have done good include Ronaldinho, Douglas Costa and Anderson, footballers who endured impoverished upbringings in poor neighbourhoods.

But Porto Alegre ("Happy Port", in English) is located in one of Brazil's richest areas. Life continues to improve in the country's booming economy, which is growing at a near double-digit annual rate because of an abundance of natural resources, continuing industrialisation and improved education.

Porto Alegre is also a football city; its two leading sides, Gremio and Internacional, are among the biggest in South America. Both boast average league crowds in excess of 30,000, with Inter the current South American champions. On this night they are defending their crown against the Bolivian minnows Jorge Wilstermann in a Copa Liberatadores group-stage match.

The Reds of Inter are especially well-supported. The 2006 Fifa Club World Cup champions under Abel Braga, now the Al Jazira coach, boast more than 150,000 paid members. An army of their fans, 6,000 strong, travelled to Abu Dhabi in December.

That was six times the number Manchester United took to Japan for the competition two years earlier and six times the number who followed the European champions Inter Milan to the UAE. They travelled in the hope that their side would be crowned club world champions for the second time in five years, but the Reds fell in the semi-finals and finished third.

"I know people who sold their cars and re-mortgaged their house to pay for that trip," said Romulo Spaniol, a shoe designer who was at the game. "Some people paid an even higher price - their marriage."

More than 30,000 supporters made for a superb atmosphere in Inter's Beira-Rio ("River Bank") home. They mingled outside the stadium with 6,000 music fans queuing to see the outlandish septuagenarian rocker Ozzy Osbourne in an adjacent arena. Little wonder that the police horse looked twitchy.

Public transportation is poor, and the majority of the football and music fans arrived in a stream of cars which clogged nearby roads.

In little more than three years a redeveloped Beira-Rio will host several games in the 2014 World Cup finals. Brazil officials say the country will be ready to host the competition and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but not everyone is convinced.

Brazil won the right to host the 2014 tournament in 2007, but progress has been limited for the first South American finals since Argentina played host in 1978.

Just last week, Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, said: "I would like to tell my Brazilian colleagues about the 2014 World Cup. It's tomorrow. The Brazilians think it's just the day after tomorrow."

He added: "We are hoping for a little good faith. Things are not advancing very quickly. If we compare [2010 hosts] South Africa and Brazil three years before the World Cup, then Brazil has not got as far as South Africa in its preparations.

"If Brazil keeps going like this there will not be matches in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo at the Confederations Cup" in 2013.

Blatter's concerns are well-founded. Twelve Brazilian cities will host the 32 competing teams in 2014 in what are promised to be 12 new or fully refurbished stadiums. But almost every construction project has been embroiled in political or financial rows which have led to delays.

Fifa's initial deadline for completion was December 2012, but only a handful of the stadiums are expected to be ready by then.

Yet mixed messages have come from Fifa. Jerome Valcke, the body's general secretary, said that his only concern is about the Brazilian airports. "A stadium takes 24 months to build," he said, implying the airports take longer.

The average stadium build time in South Africa was 33 months and the bigger stadiums, such as the stunning Moses Mabhida in Durban, took 44 months. The two biggest venues in South Africa began construction 50 months before the tournament.

There are just 38 months to Brazil 2014 and Sao Paulo's stadium, which is slated to host the opening game, has yet to be started.

The point about Brazil's airports is valid. Many are dated, especially the biggest three, two in Sao Paulo and one in Rio. Given the vast size of the country, air travel will be vital during the tournament.

It would take three days of solid driving to get from Porto Alegre to Manaus, one of the host cities located in the Amazon - not that Brazilians would consider driving. A direct flight between Manaus and Porto Alegre would take six hours, if a direct flight existed. Almost all flights go through Sao Paulo, yet the city's two main airports are heavily overburdened.

Whether Manaus needs a 50,000-seat stadium while the local football team struggles to attract five-figure crowds is another issue, and fears persist that white elephant venues will be built. But these are the least of the current worries.

In Porto Alegre, the issue is who will pay for the refurbishments, which will bring a new profile to the lower tier of the 55,000-capacity Beira-Rio, as well as build executive facilities and a daring roof to cover the seats. The progress to date has been minimal, with one quarter of the lower tier of the stadium flattened in preparation for improved seating. Still, it is a start, and it is needed because as the giant clock on one of the major, almost permanently congested, roads into Porto Alegre shows, there are just over 1,000 days until Brazil hosts the World Cup for the first time since 1950.

Brazil has produced some of the world's finest architects. Oscar Niemeyer was the man responsible for the stunning capital Brasilia, and he is still working at the age of 103.

His colleagues are anxious and the country's Architecture and Engineering Trade Union has written an open letter to the recently elected president, Dilma Rousseff, pleading that she personally take control, stating: "You are the only person who has the decision to gather resources with the indisputable legitimacy and authority. It is essential that you take control of the construction. We are halfway along the road to the World Cup, and there are only five years to go until the Olympics. It is still possible for us to have a quality infrastructure."

Fears over construction delays ahead of major sporting tournaments are nothing new. Athens was barely ready to host the 2004 Olympics a month before they started and Delhi, the 2010 Commonwealth Games host, finished work just a day before, though London unveiled its completed Olympic Stadium last week, ahead of schedule and £10 million (Dh59m) under budget.

In Brazil, they expect it to be a race to the wire. The country is not used to deadlines being imposed and met. Planners concede that the long-mooted and much-needed high-speed rail link between Sao Paulo and Rio, its two biggest mega-cities, will not be ready for either the World Cup or Olympics.

With continued allegations of corruption, nepotism and financial irregularities, the public have little faith in the authorities.

It may seem implausible to the outside world, but a row over the stadium which will host the opening game in the World Cup finals, in Sao Paulo, means that work has not even started. First, Sao Paulo's 80,000-capacity Morumbi stadium was to be redeveloped. Now, a new stadium, also to be used by the Corinthians club, will be built in an impoverished neighbourhood.

Rio's famous Maracana will stage the final. Built for the 1950 World Cup finals, it held 200,000 and for decades boasted that it was the biggest stadium in the world with a capacity twice that of London's Wembley Stadium.

The 200,000 capacity was seldom tested and when Fifa awarded Brazil the inaugural Club World Championship, in 2000, they did so on the grounds that the Maracana would be refurbished to become an 80,000 all-seater stadium. This was done, but the changes were piecemeal.

The stadium scrubbed up well and the atmosphere was legendary as two Brazilian teams reached the final at the expense of the more illustrious visitors from Real Madrid and Manchester United.

But the Maracana in its current state is not fit to stage a World Cup match. The slope of the lowest tier is too shallow and the roof covers only half the seats. Also, the executive facilities for corporate sponsors, which the Fifa mandarins are keen for organisers to prioritise, are as yet non-existent.

It is inconceivable that Fifa will take the finals elsewhere. More likely is specialists from Germany and Switzerland being brought in to get things done to their specifications.

Brazil will put its best face on in July when the World Cup qualifying draw is made in Rio's stunning natural setting between the mountains and the sea. Visiting media will get their required beautiful shots of the Ipanema or Copacabana beaches and Sugar Loaf mountain, views which have seduced millions of tourists. They will get similar on the stunning Atlantic island of Florianopolis when the draw for the finals is made in December 2013.

Brazilians love playing and watching football and this booming nation of more than 190 million people produces better footballers than any other country. Brazilians are absolutely delighted that the World Cup finals are coming to the country which has won the tournament five times, more than any other.

But for it to be a success they have to look no further than the words on their emblematic national flag. "Order and Progress", they proudly state. Brazil's 2014 efforts could do with a massive injection of both.

 

sports@thenational.ae