What awaits at Brazil's World Cup is an open question worth monitoring
JUN 11, 2014 7:17p ET
Last summer, I stepped over a cluster of bare wires and into a sweltering, curtained-off parking lot that had been hastily converted into a press-room. The Pernambuco, perched in the middle of nowhere, but ostensibly in the city of Recife, was to be one of the new, glittering jewels of Brazilian soccer. Instead, I found myself dodging crumbling concrete and wondering if I would tumble over the (unfinished) railings to break on the stones below.
On Thursday, the World Cup kicks off in Sao Paulo, and apparently little has changed. The fans who show up will be greeted by unfinished seats, chaotic travel and the very real possibility of violent protests in the streets. The 2014 World Cup was supposed to be both a spiritual homecoming for the global game and a coming-out party for one of the world's emerging nations -- but even on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, the bunting remains stowed away. The fact is, Brazil did not get it done, and what happens next is an open question.
In fact, the mood in the country is curious: Tense and wary to be in the world's spotlight when so much has clearly gone awry. Yet, there's also excitement about a competition that for them, is the ultimate not just in sport, but in their national character. This is a proud nation that is profoundly embarrassed by the mess they have found themselves in.
It's of course very easy to blame Brazil for this state of affairs. Poor planning and massive waste has been a fixture of this World Cup ever since it was awarded, with some $15 billion spent and very little to show for it. A slew of promised public works projects -- from subways to cable cars to sewer lines -- all vanished, leaving behind a haze that smells of burning money.
But despite an extraordinary effort on the part of some to paint Brazilians as listless spendthrifts, the fact of the matter is that FIFA bears a huge portion of the blame. Their demands for palatial new stadia in country where 15% of the nation lives in abject poverty -- and the top 1% of the country controls almost 45% of the wealth -- sparked tremendous social unrest.
FIFA, famously shameless when it comes to eating at the public trough, still must have been chagrined to have its own language turned against it by the middle-class teachers who clogged Sao Paulo's streets calling for "FIFA-standard schools," and by the young women in Brasilia who picketed calling for a "FIFA-standard hospitals." Unwittingly, this bloated governing body has become a symbol for all the ills of Brazil, and it is a rich irony indeed.
FIFA is of course under fire outside Brazil as well. The Qatar World Cup is in serious question as more and more information emerges about what appears to have been a spectacularly venal bidding process. The ossified regime of Sepp Blatter is being criticized across Europe, reaching new heights this week when he announced he would stand again for the presidency despite promising to step down after this term. The fact that he called criticism of FIFA and the 2002 World Cup "racist," didn't help. The siege mentality at this organization is real, with five of FIFA's six partner sponsors expressing concern over the seemingly unending allegations of corruption. And yet, there is no expectation at all that FIFA will change. Why would they?
On the field things are just as unpredictable. Injuries to some of the game's biggest stars -- Franck Ribery, Marco Reus, Radamel Falcao and many, many more -- have left the World Cup as wide-open as its ever been. Yes, South American teams have a huge advantage in Brazil -- no European team has ever won the Cup when hosted in South America -- but the long European season has left some big teams -- Germany, Portugal and Spain -- all looking decidedly vulnerable. This could make for either a wild tournament -- or a grim slog, and no one knows quite yet which.
But don't be surprised if Thursday's opener is remembered not for the spectacle -- be that glory on the ground, or protests in the streets. The kickoff of the 2014 World Cup may signal the end of an era of mega-sporting events and radical public spending. It's not just the Cup, mind you; the Olympics, badly stung after the bloat of Sochi is apparently having problems finding a host that isn't, uh, an authoritarian dictatorship.
Will the next hosts of the World Cup break the bank in the service of FIFA? Or will they, like the people of Brazil, start to say no?