World Cup: Clouds gather but show will go on

Brazil enjoys a reputation for the beautiful game. Picture: AFP/Getty
Brazil enjoys a reputation for the beautiful game. Picture: AFP/Getty
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Brazil’s World Cup has been dogged by crime, tragedy and delays, but Paul Forsyth expects it to come good in the end

The draw for the 2014 World Cup finals will take place on Friday at a purpose-built venue in Brazil’s Costa do Sauipe resort. Among the mangroves and coconut trees and blue lagoons will be 1,300 guests, 2,000 representatives of the media and a cast of light entertainers that includes a Sao Paulo rapper called Emicida, an Afro-Brazilian percussion group by the name of Olodum and Margareth Menezes, an icon of the local street carnivals.

Add to that a long list of former World Cup winners, including Mario Kempes, Zinedine Zidane and Cafu, the marauding full-back who twice lifted the trophy for the selecao, and the stereotype is complete.

This is the Brazil we know and love – sun, sand, samba, and an unrivalled, obsessive passion for football in its most beautiful form.

Whether that is the Brazil that will be revealed to the world between now and next summer is another matter.

As the countdown begins to the country’s first finals since 1950, there is as much to lose from the high-risk venture as there is to gain. Attracting 600,000 visitors and a global audience is all very well, but the accompanying media scrutiny can be less than flattering. While we are used to scare stories being rushed out before every major sporting event – from legacy issues to security worries and fears that the infrastructure will not be completed in time – the catalogue of problems, setbacks and outright disasters during the build-up to Brazil has been almost unrelenting.

If it isn’t the tragic death of two workers at the Arena Sao Paulo stadium, where a fallen crane has forced the arena’s completion date to be put back even further, it is potential protests by political activists, police corruption, drug-running and a steady diet of crime, episodes of which are recounted in the most gruesome detail.

In April, two supporters were shot dead on their way to the Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza, where a local derby doubled as a test event for the Confederations Cup.

On the same day that Brazil won the competition with a 3-0 defeat of Spain in the final, a 20-year-old man refereeing a “pick-up match” in the north-east of the country stabbed to death one of the players. The referee was then tied to a tree, quartered and decapitated. His head was placed on a stake.

In October, the wife of a former Brazilian footballer, who had not returned from work the night before, found his rucksack outside their front door. In the bag was his severed head, with the eyes and tongue gouged out.

All of which has been reported with unseemly relish, together with the country’s yawning divide between rich and poor, Rio De Janeiro’s transport chaos and a host of health and social problems, including dengue fever, expected to be at its peak in three of the 12 host cities during next summer’s finals. It’s enough to make the organisers wonder why they bothered.

Some of the coverage is mischievous. The murders, of which there will be many more before a ball is kicked, have nothing to do with football and everything to do with the country’s social issues, but that doesn’t stop foreign media connecting the two. Brazilian commentators are already growing weary of the manner in which every incident is said to be “raising fears ” for World Cup tourists, few of whom are likely to go near the places where the worst atrocities are committed, never mind do the things that cause them.

Nonetheless, there is a side to Brazil that will not make the tourist brochures, the FIFA website or the pre-amble to Friday’s draw. A study published in July by the Brazilian Center for Latin American Studies described it as the world’s seventh most violent country. Less than eight per cent of homicides are solved, compared with 65 per cent in the United States.

Activists have also done quite a job of highlighting the country’s social woes. The protesters who turned out in their millions to hijack the Confederations Cup have no intention of giving up now. “Nao vai ter copa” (the cup won’t take place) is their rather ominous chant. They still believe that it was obscene for a country plagued by extreme poverty to spend $14 billion on a World Cup. They still think that the money used to build stadiums could have funded schools, hospitals and housing for the nation’s slum-dwellers. As ever, the legacy is also doubted, with this year’s prospective white elephant taking shape in Manaus, where the local team attract crowds of fewer than 3,000.

Work on the infrastructure has come in for heavy criticism. Last week’s disaster in Sao Paulo brought to four the number of construction workers killed at Brazilian World Cup stadiums. At the Arena Fonte Nova in May, part of the roof collapsed due to heavy rainfall. Many of the grounds will not be completed by the end of this year, a deadline imposed by FIFA so that they would have time to undertake the necessary checks and preparation.

All of this, and more, will drag Brazil through the mud these next few months, but the aim, after that, will be to prove the sceptics wrong. And, if that can be achieved, it will not be the first time. Remember South Africa, where they said that the 2010 event, if its stadiums were ever built, would be a badly-organised, crime-plagued fiasco? That country, too, has its problems, few of which were solved by the World Cup, but they didn’t prevent the nation putting on a show.

There is no disguising Brazil’s struggle to be ready, but, if previous finals are any guide, they will get the job done. A little late perhaps, and not without the odd hitch, but what is a Brazilian World Cup if not a spontaneous exhibition of unpredictable individuals?

If they and their national team can come together, perhaps even with a home victory that unites the country, maybe it will all have been worth it.