Brazil's testing time for sports glory

BACKLASH: Military policemen standing in a line in Sao Paulo last month, behind a demonstrator dressed as a skeleton holding up a trophy during a protest against the 2014 World Cup.


    Jun 10, 2014

    Brazil's testing time for sports glory

    WHEN former Brazil president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva proudly held the World Cup trophy aloft in 2007, a nation roared.

    Brazil did not win the World Cup that October afternoon in Zurich, as Sepp Blatter, president of football's world governing body Fifa, handed over the gold trophy.

    But in securing the rights for the 2014 tournament, euphoric scenes, once reserved only for each of Brazil's five World Cup victories, erupted all over the country.

    Football was returning to its spiritual home, to the land of the Beautiful Game, and it was hard for a Brazilian not to feel proud.

    Yet, with the 2014 World Cup kick-off on Thursday, the mood in Brazil could not be more different.

    Just about a fortnight ago, the Brazil national team, so often the revered symbol of Brazilian greatness, saw their team bus punched and kicked by protesters on the first day of the team's training camp.

    It was the latest in a series of very public displays of unhappiness over the US$11 billion (S$13.8 billion) it will cost to host the World Cup.

    Last June, more than one million people took to the streets in cities across Brazil in the country's biggest protests in 20 years. Sparked by bus fare hikes, protesters also denounced the high bill for the football tournament, while pointing out that not enough is being spent on municipal infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals.

    The world is watching with trepidation as Brazil is not just hosting the World Cup, but also the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016 - essentially the globe's two biggest sporting events in the space of two years.

    Five years ago, when Rio was awarded the Olympics, close to 100 per cent of Brazilians backed the hosting of the Games. Today, almost the opposite is true.

    In 2007, eight in 10 Brazilians were in favour of the World Cup. Today, only five in 10 welcome the event, while more than half of the 200-million population think it will harm, not benefit, the economy.

    According to the Associated Press, corruption and allegedly fraudulent billing saw the cost of building Brasilia's World Cup stadium nearly triple to US$900 million in public funds. Other press reports linked the construction firm awarded the project to political campaign contributions.

    Eyebrows were also raised when mega stadiums were built in cities such as Manaus, Brasilia and Cuiba, even though they boast poor footballing sides with very modest fan bases.

    Amid delays in construction - several World Cup stadiums are yet to be 100 per cent ready and urban transport systems promised for the tournament are unlikely to be completed in time - and growing unhappiness, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has defended the way her country has organised the tournament.

    Yet Brazil's problems are likely to get worse in the build-up to the Olympics.

    An International Olympic Committee vice-president has already called the city's preparations "the worst that I have experienced".

    Work on the proposed Olympic golf course has halted because of disagreements between the state and developers. But at least work has begun.

    At the Deodoro Olympic Park, the second-biggest Olympic venue and home to at least four sports, construction has yet to begin. While in Guanabara Bay, where the sailing and windsurfing events will be held, sewage problems contribute to a pollution headache.

    "You're going to put high-performance athletes in this water, that isn't even water, it's a toilet," biologist Mario Moscatelli told CNN.

    Then there is the issue of Rio's ballooning budget. Estimates now put the cost of holding Brazil's first Olympic Games at US$16 billion, up US$3 billion from when the Games were awarded.

    Given the ill-feelings to the World Cup, it is hard to see how public sentiment will improve for the Olympics. Few would have imagined that Brazilians would be against a World Cup, a tournament synonymous with their country. What more the Olympics, where the interest is nowhere close to the affinity Brazilians have with football.

    Brazil's government must note that times are different now. In 2007, Brazil's economy grew by 4.5 per cent and was experiencing its best economic period in decades. Today, its economy is at half that pace, while public resentment has doubled.

    If steps are not taken to right the wrongs of the World Cup now, 2016 could see a public relations disaster of Olympic proportions - and that could be the best-case scenario.

    Brazil needs to step up its game or no matter how many goals are scored in the World Cup, or how many golds are won at the Olympics, the cheers will be drowned out by the jeers.