With doubts over the stadiums, former striker Romário a leading critic and Fifa’s reputation at stake, it could still be the fans who suffer most if the chaos and controversy have an impact
For all the chaos, controversy and corporate greed that surrounds Sepp Blatter’s Fifa circus, it is impossible to extinguish the romantic allure of a Brazilian World Cup. But with less than a month to go until the tournament kicks off in a São Paulo stadium that remains unfinished, there is a conflicted air abroad in a country that treats football as a religion.
With the continuing debate about the extent protests in which more than one million people took to the streets during last summer’s Confederations Cup will be repeated, amid festering discontent about the $11bn spent on the World Cup and looming elections, there is also a frenzied dash to make sure the country is ready to host 32 nations and a claimed 3.7 million additional tourists.
As the countdown towards the first match continues, pictures of riot police in terrifying Robocop-style uniforms dominate the press, alongside stories about security forces receiving training from the FBI to counter expected unrest.
Public anger is unlikely to be assuaged by a new government investigation that found the cost of Brasília’s new stadium has nearly tripled to $900m, largely because of alleged fraudulent billing. That will leave the Brazilian capital with the second most expensive football stadium in history (behind Wembley), despite the fact it has no top-flight side.
Even the news that Luiz Felipe Scolari, the manager of a home side under huge pressure to win the tournament, is now under investigation in Portugal for alleged tax evasion seems to fit the troubled narrative.
It is nearly seven years since Fifa awarded the 2014 World Cup to Brazil without a contest, invoking all the romance that the return of the tournament to the home of the five-times winners after more than half a century would inevitably bring.
Blatter – sandwiched between the corrupt and discredited former Brazilian FA president, Ricardo Teixeira, and Romário, the former striker who would become one of the 2014 World Cup’s most trenchant critics – claimed then that Fifa had set the bar higher than it would have done had there been a contest between more countries.
The fact that there is a mad rush to complete at least three of the 12 stadiums, that some airports remain unfinished and that there is continuing concern over the provision of flights to ferry fans vast distances around the huge host country should lead to some soul searching at Fifa House.
Instead it has already sparked a renewed outbreak of buck passing between Fifa, the Brazilian government and organisers.
All 12 stadiums were due to be finished by the turn of the year but those in São Paulo, Curitiba and Cuiabá are still being fitted out. Of most concern to Fifa – which insists it will be all right on the night – is the race to install all the temporary infrastructure, including broadcast links and fan concessions, that is required.
Some of the more lurid headlines are the inevitable result of the last-minute nerves that grip any country before a major sporting event and the increased media scrutiny that they bring.
The buildup to the South Africa World Cup was dominated by crime scares and passed off without incident, while the London Olympics were gripped by security fears during the run-up. But the concerns in Brazil go deeper.
While Fifa is mainly worried about practicalities such as the readiness of the stadiums and the ability of fans to travel, others are worried that the need to contain protests will lead to a clampdown on civil liberties. Meanwhile, with the death of an electrician last week in Cuiabá, the human cost of the rush to finish the infrastructure in time has also been highlighted.
Mohammad Ali, 32, was killed while working in the Arena Pantanal in Cuiabá. Ali’s death was the sixth nationwide since November when two men were crushed following a crane collapse in São Paulo, delaying work on that stadium. Jérôme Valcke, the Fifa secretary general, who is charged with overseeing the World Cup, sparked a diplomatic row two years ago by saying that the Brazilians needed a “kick up the backside”.
More recently, he has been left trying to defend its role in a seven-year process during which he said world football’s governing body had “been through hell”.
Rio’s outspoken mayor, Eduardo Paes, has compared Fifa’s approach unfavourably to that of the International Olympic Committee, while other critics including Romário have claimed that it is interested only in swooping into the host country, extracting a profit and a telegenic backdrop before leaving behind white elephant stadiums and debts.
But Valcke has insisted that Fifa has done everything it can to bully, cajole and persuade the various layers of the Brazilian state to be ready in time for kick-off. It will be a very close run thing. He said Fifa had a vested interest in ensuring the Brazil World Cup was a success – but ended up only reinforcing the perception that for Fifa its crown jewel competition is largely a cash cow.
“We’re supporting Brazil to ensure that it’s a success because the whole of Fifa is based around the success of the World Cup,” he said. “If the World Cup is a failure then we, Fifa, are in trouble.”
One of the fundamental problems caused by the insistence of the Brazilian organisers that games be scattered around the country – so that fans across the vast land had a chance to watch the hosts – rather than grouped in geographical clusters, is the sheer impracticality of getting around.
Valcke did little to dispel the fears that it is fans who will suffer most – an admission that, for many, will confirm all their suspicions about Fifa’s priorities. “The biggest challenge will be for them,” he said. “It will not be for the media, it will not be for the teams, it will not be for the officials, it will be for the fans.”