x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

World Cup 2014: Time is running out for Brazil

Question marks over naming issues and problems with country's infrastructure, writes Gary Meenaghan from Sao Paulo.

Jerome Valcke, the secretary-general of Fifa, kicks a ball during an inspection at the construction site of the Itaqueirao Stadium in Sao Paulo last month.
Jerome Valcke, the secretary-general of Fifa, kicks a ball during an inspection at the construction site of the Itaqueirao Stadium in Sao Paulo last month.

For a country renowned as one of the most beautiful on earth, Brazil at times lacks a certain self-esteem.

As the nation's many countdown clocks get ready to remind residents the 2014 World Cup is only 19 months away, Brazilian residents appear their own worst enemies, looking for faults in everything and anything. And sadly, when it comes to football's global showpiece, they have a sea of subject matter.

As the World Cup prepares to kick off in Sao Paulo on June 12, 2014, announcements have grown more frequent in recent months. Yet whatever the news - be it from Fifa, the local organising committee or the Brazilian government - it is invariably met with a cocktail consisting of one part cynicism, two parts criticism, a splash of sardonic humour and a little wooden smile.

Take the official World Cup ball, for example. Fifa announced in September that the ball used during the summer of 2014 will be called "Brazuca", a slang term for Brazilian people. Following the announcement, the internet appeared awash with negative comments from locals - a strange occurrence given the vote was conducted online.

The issue with "Brazuca" was not only that the word uses the letter "z" instead of "s" and thus is distinctly anglicised, but also that it, historically, is used in a derogatory way.

The Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo noted in a caustic comment that "it wasn't enough to choose a name of dubious taste; we had to replace the 's' for a 'z' to make it look better and please the matrix. Who knows, maybe as the term 'brazuca' spreads, foreigners will finally understand that the capital of Brazil is Buenos Aires …"

Fifa's latest christening of a World Cup product produced similarly cynical remarks from natives. The mascot for the summer showpiece was revealed in September to be a colourful armadillo, native to northeastern Brazil.

Following a three-month voting process, which local fans derided as undemocratic, it was announced last week that the mascot's name will be "Fuleco".

According to football's governing body, the name is a mixture of the words "futebol" and "ecologia" and transmits a message of ecological awareness. However, according to many Brazilians - several of whom signed an online petition demanding a more democratic way of naming the mascot - "fuleco" also means anus.

When it comes to more serious matters - security, stadiums and transport - the local population have far greater cause for concern.

A report published last month in The Economist said Sao Paulo has seen more than 300 people die in the state capital as a result of an undeclared war between the police and a high-profile organised drugs gang.

The report added more than 90 police officers have been killed since January and the state murder rate is likely to rise above 10 per 100,000 residents before the end of the year.

Jerome Valcke, Fifa's general-secretary, said he is "certain" Brazil's government is capable of tackling the situation, while Aldo Rebelo, the country's sports minister, added "preventive measures have already been taken" between the state and federal governments to ensure people's security "not just during the World Cup but on a daily basis".

Even if security plans are in place, stadium plans are lagging. Valcke conceded this week for the first time that Manaus, Brazil's northernmost host city, located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, is in danger of being dropped from the tournament schedule due to its lack of progress.

Manaus was included in Brazil's final proposal at the behest of the country's government, who are keen to spread the World Cup footprint countrywide. Yet despite work continuing on a new, 42,377-capacity stadium, Valcke said it is the furthest behind of all 12 venues, adding officials will find it "difficult" to meet their deadline.

"There is no Plan B here. You can take one stadium off the schedule," Valcke said. "In December 2013, we will have the draw for the finals, which will locate all the teams and all the games, so a decision - whatever it is - will have to be taken before then."

It is a similar story with transport: the work is underway, but whether it will be ready in time remains to be seen. Officials already have confirmed the proposed high-speed train line linking Sao Paulo with Rio de Janeiro ahead of the World Cup will not be ready by the time Rio hosts the Olympics in 2016, let alone the World Cup two years earlier.

The result is more visitors being forced to fly yet airports remain the single greatest issue facing Brazil. The country expects to welcome more than half a million tourists during the World Cup, but the airports are in such a state of disrepair that Pele called them "frightening".

Sao Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport was voted one of the most hated in the world by CNN last year, and with Forbes reporting only 41 per cent of departing flights leave on time it is of little surprise.

Valcke proved earlier this year that Brazilians are willing to employ the Mother Logic, the theory that "we can speak badly of our nation, but you, as a foreigner, must not".

The Frenchman caused a diplomatic incident in March when he said the country "needed a kick up the backside", yet his harsh words seem to have worked.

Guarulhos is one of several airports - including those in Rio, Belo Horizonte and Brasilia - that will undergo expensive upgrades and although some are already resigned to tourists being greeted by temporary modules in 2014, the work will smooth operations substantially.

The first test of Brazil's capabilities will arrive next summer when the Confederations Cup provides a perfect opportunity to gauge progress. Eight national teams will compete across six of the host cities during the two-week tournament held between June 15-30.

Jose Maria Marin, the president of the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF), said he has every confidence things will run to plan.

"We are doing our utmost in a perfect integration - and I have absolutely no doubt in assuring that, within the schedule presented, Brazil will show everybody that it has met all the requirements set by Fifa and will demonstrate the ability and competence in organising a great World Cup," Marin said.

Confidence can be expected from a man who revealed he single-handedly dismissed the coach of the national team and picked Luiz Felipe Scolari to fill the void. Fifa too, however, also now seem to have seen enough to find belief in Brazil's abilities.

Sepp Blatter, the president of football's world governing body, said that having been presented the road map to 2014 by Marin, he is sure things are now on track.

"We know not everything is perfect," he said. "But perfection does not exist. Everything will be ready on time."

The countdown clocks are ticking.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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