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Days before World Cup, many Brazilians just not in the mood

Anger at the costs of hosting the World Cup overshadows excitement in a country passionate about "the beautiful game".

Subway train operators, along with some activists, clash with police at the Ana Rosa metro station on the second day of their metro strike in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 6, 2014. Nelson Antoine / AP Photo
Subway train operators, along with some activists, clash with police at the Ana Rosa metro station on the second day of their metro strike in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 6, 2014. Nelson Antoine / AP Photo

RIO DE JANEIRO // The upcoming football World Cup in Brazil was supposed to be the party to end all parties.

What more could a fan want?

The home of Carnival and “the beautiful game”, as Pelé once famously called it, finally had the economic, political and social stability to host the tournament for the first time since 1950.

After a half-century in which its football prowess outdribbled its development, South America’s biggest country could at last flout its success both on and off the pitch.

But less than a week before Thursday’s kickoff, Brazil feels anything but festive. An economic boom that catapulted 40 million people out of poverty in the last decade, and motivated Brazil to host the world’s most popular sports event, has waned.

With rising inflation, urban gridlock and soaring crime as a backdrop, protesters over the past year have rallied against $11 billion in World Cup spending and alleged corruption that drove up the cost of building stadiums and other infrastructure projects, some of which were never delivered.

Sportscasts on team strategy, prevalent before previous World Cups, are splitting airtime with news reports featuring soldiers and police deployed in 12 host cities to ensure that labour strikes, demonstrations and crime do not disrupt the tournament.

At its most telling, the lack of enthusiasm is evident on sidewalks, squares and corner cafes. Absent the riot of yellow and green that normally erupts every four years, many public areas remain remarkably staid even as Brazil prepares to host an event that it always celebrated from afar.

“People are disgusted,” said Mariana Faria, the owner of a party supply store in central Rio de Janeiro, where sales are 40 per cent lower than when the last World Cup took place in South Africa four years ago. “Nobody wants to spend money on something now associated with waste and corruption.”

The pall over Brazil counters what global football fans expect to be a month of sheer sporting extravaganza. And it could be that Brazilians will perk up if their team starts to dazzle.

The tournament, the first in which all previous Cup winners have qualified, will feature almost every major star in the game — from Neymar, Brazil’s young hope, to Lionel Messi, the Argentine considered by many to be the era’s best player, to Cristiano Ronaldo, the cocksure Portuguese who would argue otherwise.

The dour mood is also a far cry from what most envisioned when Brazil secured hosting rights in 2007. Back then, organisers hoped the prevailing narrative would be that of a resurgent country with a national team poised to exorcise Brazil’s historic loss to Uruguay in the final stages of the 1950 tournament at Rio’s Maracanã stadium, also the venue for this Cup’s final.

So where did Brazil go wrong?

To many, the Cup symbolises the gulf between what Brazil’s leaders’ promises and what they deliver, be it good schools and hospitals or an offshore oil bonanza, discovered just as Brazil won the rights to the tournament, that has failed to blossom because of high costs and bureaucracy.

So slow were the World Cup preparations, including seats still being installed at the opening stadium, that the secretary general of Fifa, football’s governing body, as early as 2012 said Brazil needed “a kick up the backside”.

Most major global sports events, of course, are fraught with criticism and hand-wringing ahead of showtime. And more often than not, there is a sigh of relief once the opening ceremony is over and the games begin.

In the northern Rio neighbourhood of Tijuca, Ricardo Ferreira, a parking garage owner, last weekend worked with friends to decorate an intersection where an impromptu pavement viewing of the 1978 tournament has since blossomed into the “Alzirão”, one of the city’s biggest World Cup street parties.

Under overhead cables where Ferreira strung more than 10 miles worth of plastic ribbon and other decorations, demonstrators had painted a protest message of “SOS” for the creaky public health system. Neighbours have been asking whether Rio would still flock to the party.

“I hope so,” he said. “We’re not the government. We’re not Fifa. We still like football here, don’t we?”

* Reuters