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The 2014 World Cup in Brazil: Ready — or not?

As Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup, nearly half of the construction projects haven't even begun. Should FIFA, Brazil and the world be worried?

June 24, 2012|By Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times

The 2014 World Cup is scheduled to kick off in San Paulo, Brazil, in a little less than two years. But there's no guarantee Brazil will be ready by then.

A report from Brazil's sports ministry last month said just 5% of planned World Cup-related projects, including an airport expansion and port improvements, were done — and nearly half hadn't even been started. Of those underway, many projects are well behind schedule while the costs for others have soared to as much as three times original estimates.

For the easily excitable officials with FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, that has all the earmarks of a major crisis. For the rest of the world, however, it's probably a little too early to sound the alarms — especially with Cup leaders in Brazil insisting everything is going to be OK.

"I am fully confident that the event will be a success, in and out of the playing fields," Aldo Rebelo, the country's minister of sports, wrote in an email interview. "There are no major obstacles in addition to those that are normally faced with organizing an event of this size and importance. Brazil has completed feats that are far more complex than organizing a World Cup."

Which isn't to say Brazil won't face enormous challenges over the next 24 months. The last time the World Cup was held there, in 1950, only 16 countries took part and the tournament was played in six cities bunched along the country's Atlantic coast.

The field will be twice as large in 2014. And since Brazil is the second-largest country — after the U.S. — to host a World Cup, the 12 cities where games will be played sprawl over two times zones and are separated by as many as 2,000 miles, from the edge of the equator to below the Tropic of Capricorn.

That's not a good combination for a country whose transportation infrastructure is woefully inadequate at best.

But Rebelo points to the large events Brazil stages on a regular basis, such as the country's national soccer championships and Carnival, as proof that the country can manage the World Cup.

"During Carnival … we receive more tourists than we expect to receive during the World Cup," he wrote. "None of the major tourist destinations have faced any major problems in transportation, and the return rates of tourists are very high, a clear indication that things here work."

Then there are the stadiums themselves. New venues are being built in Sao Paulo and Recife, and 10 others are being rebuilt or refurbished — and FIFA is worried that as many as half those stadiums will not be ready in time.

Next summer's Confederations Cup, a sort of dress rehearsal for the World Cup, had already been pulled from Sao Paulo, South America's largest city, because of construction concerns. And there appears to be no suitable backup plan should any of the other venues fail to be completed on schedule.

FIFA is especially fearful a 42,000-seat facility being rebuilt in northeastern Natal won't be available for any part of the World Cup because of a construction schedule that leaves "no margin for problems."

Earlier this year, FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke, upset with the construction delays, said the process was "not working" and World Cup organizers needed a "kick" to get things moving.

Those comments caused an uproar, and Valcke was forced to apologize — and although FIFA officials have since become more selective in their language, they haven't backed off their criticism. And that's angered Brazilians as well.

"The few pessimists insistent on denying the competence of our workers … will only stop criticizing our united progress when they watch the beginning of the celebration," Rebelo shot back.

But not all the critics can be dismissed as anti-Brazilian.

Romario de Souza Faria, known as simply Romario when he was a World Cup champion and FIFA player of the year, is a first-term congressman from the Brazilian Socialist Party, and he previously supported Brazil's World Cup bid. He's now a fervent critic of Cup preparations, blasting the government and FIFA for misleading the public. And even the legendary Pele, appointed World Cup ambassador by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, has expressed concern, calling the delays in work on stadiums and transportation infrastructure an embarrassment. He has since softened his stance, though, expressing confidence the tournament "will run smoothly."

Romario, who has raised concerns about the misuse of public funds and overspending, offered a theory about why construction has lagged. Projects that fall well behind schedule, the congressman suggested, could end up being categorized as "emergency work," meaning they can be completed without an open bidding process. Presumably that increases the possibility of corruption, a valid fear given that six of Rousseff's top ministers left the government in the final six months of 2011 amid corruption charges.

In fact, Rebelo, a former Communist Party congressman, owes his new job managing preparations for the World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games to the scandal because the president named him to replace former sports minister Orlando Silva after the country's Supreme Court began investigating Silva over alleged kickbacks from sports-related projects.

Silva denied the claims.

But Romario believes the graft is widespread. "It will be the greatest heist in the history of Brazil," he said.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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