News came from on high — that is, from FIFA headquarters — this weekend that the Arena Itaquerao (or Arena Corinthians), the Sao Paulo stadium that is supposed to be one of the lasting legacies of this World Cup, won’t be done until mid-May, less than a month before it will host the first match of the tournament.
That, along with the fact that stadiums in both Curitiba and Cuiaba are also incomplete as of yet, has sparked concern that Brazil, today just 100 days from the start of what has been billed as the “Cup of all Cups,” won’t be ready.
If FIFA is worried, it isn’t showing it.
“There is no criticism, there is just a challenge,” FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said over the weekend. “For sure the stadiums are beautiful. It will work, and you will have what you expected.”
Valcke has reason to believe, because we’ve been here before. Last summer, it was Rio de Janeiro’s Estadio do Maracana, the real crown jewel of this tournament, that wasn’t quite ready for the big stage, still facing questions about its $500 million renovation just a month before the opening of the Confederations Cup, the pre-World Cup tune-up. A judge’s injunction caused by safety concerns nearly canceled a friendly between Brazil and England.
But a month later, Brazil danced its way to a Confederations Cup victory with a display of soccer so dazzling that Spain, the defending World Cup champion, could only join the 80,000-strong Maracana crowd in watching. There were protests in the streets, sure, but the Maracana was finished, the people were safe, and the home side was victorious. It made the previous worries plenty easy to forget.
The World Cup will likely do the same. The Itaquerao will be done. So will the others. By June, Brazil will have its World Cup and 12 stadiums that are as beautiful as the soccer its national team plays.
Just because the worry about the readiness of stadiums is misplaced, though, doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to be concerned about these delays. Many of the stories about the stadiums mention that Brazil has also fallen behind on other projects and the myriad other problems Brazil has faced. There’s a connection. It is Brazil’s inability to complete its stadiums — and FIFA’s demands that they be sufficiently lavish — that have caused or at least contributed to everything else that won’t get done in time. And there’s plenty of reason to worry about that.
“Now what you see is way more money spent on sports infrastructure than they were supposed to,” sports economist Victor Matheson told me last year. “And so what was sold as all long-term development seems to be shifting toward, ‘Let’s get all the sports stuff done.’ So you get all the spending on the stuff that doesn’t have good long-term benefits while ignoring the whole reason the thing was sold the way it was.”
Many of those long-term development projects that were supposed to be get done are instead twisting in the wind, delayed or canceled precisely because the stadiums aren’t yet finished. The rail line to connect Rio and Sao Paulo. The airports in Cuiaba and other cities. Those efforts were at the center of Brazil’s sales pitch to its people when it secured the Cup in 2007 and the 2016 Summer Olympics shortly thereafter — the $30 billion Brazil was going to devote to those mega-events would, its government promised, come with other investments into projects and programs that would improve the lives of everyone else not for a month of soccer but as Brazil continues to emerge as one of the world’s growing economies.
Whether Brazil ever could have kept those promises is hard to discern, and whether Brazil was better off investing in this at all as opposed to its crumbling or incomplete hospitals and schools was always up for debate. Regardless, many of these long-term projects have been delayed or canceled as Brazil rushes to complete stadiums, because while its possible to host a World Cup without new housing developments and hospitals or improved water treatment facilities (to name just a few), the tournament can’t go on without the Itaquerao and the Maracana and other venues like them.
Not all of the projects, of course, have been pushed off. Some slums are being demolished to make way for stadium parking lots and other developments, their residents uprooted and relocated so that the cities look pretty. Pacification, the program meant to “clean up” those slums, is in full force, negative implications for Brazil’s poorest residents and all. The millions of dollars Brazil is spending to secure its World Cup and Olympics — with little concern for what it will mean for a population already fighting back against police brutality and impunity — are flowing freely.
Brazil insists that the projects it can’t complete before the Cup begins will be finished afterward. But after that final game in the Maracana, the Olympics will be less than two years away. New deadlines will approach, a new overseer with tastes just as lavish as FIFA’s will take control. The hospitals that started 30 years ago but never reached completion will still sit there. More families will face eviction and relocation. New sporting-related facilities will have to be finished. Other projects that actually help Brazilians will fall further down the list of priorities. The same dynamic will repeat itself, and the idea that Brazil is “sacrificing a little bit of its future” to host these events will only become more real. That’s not to say hosting the World Cup will be an all-out negative for Brazil. There are positives to hosting these events too. But one of them is that it can help spur development that would otherwise take decades to approve and complete — and in that sense, Brazil is making those positive benefits harder to capture.
There are other concerns too. The longer delay in Itaquerao construction was caused, in part, by a construction accident in November that destroyed part of the stadium and killed three workers. Add in the two other deaths that occurred in Manaus in December and five of the six workers who have died in Brazil’s World Cup preparations have done so in the last 100 days, just as the country put the pedal to the floor in an effort to beat deadlines. Aside from death, there are already complaints of overwork and underpay and general labor abuse. As the pressure to complete these projects before the World Cup increases, it may take a divine stroke of luck to ensure that the rush to complete these stadiums ahead of the World Cup won’t make any of the problems facing workers worse.
FIFA isn’t concerned about any of this because it doesn’t have to be. We talk of Brazil’s struggles to beat a deadline now, but the Cup will surely kick off at a lovely Itaquerao on June 12. It will continue for the next month at completed stadiums in Cuiaba and Curitiba and Manaus and elsewhere. It will finish, with any luck, as the Confederations Cup did, with Brazil’s yellow-clad national team celebrating at the center of the Maracana, avenging the home-turf finals loss it suffered 64 years ago, the only other time it has hosted this tournament. It will be an exceptional Cup, perhaps even the “Cup of all Cups” President Dilma Roussef has promised. We will, as Valcke said Saturday, have exactly what we expected when Brazil won this award seven long years ago.
The current feelings of worry will be gone, the World Cup successful enough to make them seem silly. As long, of course, as you aren’t one of the people FIFA and Brazil left behind in its rush to make all of that true.