Brazil's World Cup Lag Grows Dire and Angry Words Fly

Brazil may be the world's soccer capital, but as the country gears up to host the World Cup in 2014, a war of words between the government and FIFA, soccer's ruling body, just keeps intensifying.

The hostilities have followed a predictable pattern: FIFA criticizes Brazil for being behind with preparations; Brazil gets in a huff; FIFA apologizes. Then it starts all over again.

In the latest round, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke caused a storm when he said that Brazil needed a "kick up the backside." Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo said the secretary general should be removed from his post. Marco Aurelio Garcia, a foreign-policy adviser to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, exclaimed:"This guy is a vagabond!"

Valcke described the Brazilian reaction as "puerile." Then he apologized, blaming a mistranslation. The Senate has since refused to meet with him for a scheduled hearing.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter visited Rousseff and seemed to make peace. Then Blatter fired a salvo of his own as he welcomed the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies' belated passing of its World Cup Bill, which defines the legal framework for the event.

"We want actions, not just more words," Blatter said.

He was referring to increasingly worrisome delays in Brazil's public-works plans for the tournament. Eight of the 12 stadiums being built are less than halfway done, according to the Sports Ministry. Infrastructure is in a worse state, noted the Carta Capital magazine:

The infrastructure works, above all those of urban mobility, are way behind. Some of them, like the light rail of Fortaleza and Manaus, still haven't started. Others, including the Sao Paulo monorail, have already been discarded.

Seventeen of Brazil’s biggest airports operated above capacity last year, the magazine said, and 10 of the 13 terminals needed for the World Cup won't be ready by 2014 -- or, if they are, will be opened with lower capacity than expected. The business daily Valor recently published a study showing that from September to January, 19 World Cup-related projects were behind schedule or had already been abandoned. The federal agency that finances most projects has approved just $106 million of the $2.89 billion requested by states and municipalities for improvements.

The Brazilian blogosphere is concluding that Blatter had a point.

"Blatter is right to demand!!!" exclaimed the headline on the Blog do Neto, written by Jose Ferreira Neto, a former soccer star and one of the country's leading commentators.

The reality is that everything here is a shame. Extremely late. And I'm not just talking about the stadiums. Thinking as a taxpayer, who pays taxes on time, I would also like to see infrastructure works. In other words, airports, metros, improvement to roads and major avenues. Where is all of this? Very little exists. That is, ready-ready, there's absolutely nothing ... Blatter is more than right. As the leading boss in world soccer he has more than the right to demand deadlines and a coherent posture from those in charge. Because, despite our Brazil being considered the country of soccer, it is also the place of a lot of corrupt and unprincipled people. Let's open our eyes!

Jose Roberto Bernasconi, the president of Sinaenco-SP, a Sao Paulo architecture and engineering trade group, said in an interview with Agencia Brasil that the country was missing a great opportunity -- especially given the demand for new transportation systems and hotels to accommodate the 600,000 foreign tourists and 1.1 million Brazilians expected to travel during the World Cup.

Brazil has, in this event, a great opportunity to make investments and further develop its urban infrastructure. Unfortunately, it seems, Brazil will adopt palliative solutions for transit, such as declaring public holidays on match days or school vacations during the period, and for airport infrastructure, like provisional terminals.

Senator Pedro Taques from the Democratic Labor Party was quick to play the nationalist card. "This is not a banana republic," Taques declared, according to Agencia Brasil. "The administration made commitments, but that does not mean compromising our sovereignty. I will not make a deal with the devil to do the work of God."

Journalist Mary Zaidan argued against such displays of bruised national pride on the O Globo newspaper's Blog do Noblat:

There is no such patriotism that justifies criticisms of FIFA when it says it is irritated with Brazil, especially now, with the uncertainty regarding the sale of alcoholic drinks during the games, something that had always been agreed upon. Much less does it make sense to try to turn FIFA into a villain, the thief of Brazilian dignity, as some governing authorities want to make the country believe.

The sale of alcohol at World Cup games has been a major sticking point. It's illegal in Brazil to sell booze at soccer stadiums, but FIFA has demanded an exemption for the Cup to satisfy its beer sponsors. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva allegedly agreed to allow it during negotiations with FIFA in 2007. (The World Cup Bill passed by the Chamber of Deputies didn't fully resolve the issue; the bill now goes to the Senate.)

The larger point was that the debate over preparedness has been diverted because Brazil's fragile national pride has been wounded. The stigma of what Brazilians call the "complexo de vira-lata," or the "mongrel complex," still runs strong, and the phrase, often attributed to Charles de Gaulle, that "Brazil is not a serious country" still stings.

But less noticed in the media storm that surrounded Blatter's comment, the FIFA chief had sounded a more positive, if resigned, note.

"I am optimistic. There are always problems with hotels; the situation is not perfect," he said. "It was the same in South Africa in certain cities. But this is not going to prevent supporters from going to Brazil."

(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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