Cup of dreams or poisoned chalice?

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

The final whistle at tomorrow’s Euro 2012 final will begin the countdown to the 2014 World Cup, in Brazil. Critics say that the tournament will suck wealth from the country at the expense of efforts to reduce poverty

THOUGH THEY ARE playing the same game, the semi-final of the Amazonas state soccer championship is a world away from the glamour of Euro 2012. Most of the players lining up in Sesi stadium, in the jungle city of Manaus, for the match between Iranduba and São Raimundo are children from the Amazon rainforest who at best can dream of journeyman careers toiling in the poorly paid lower tiers of Brazilian soccer.

Their fans are passionate, especially those in green cheering for Iranduba, who advance to the state final courtesy of a 3-1 win.

Followers of São Raimundo, who greeted their team’s entrance with fireworks, start to drift away after the third goal goes in. A small knot of ultras, or extreme fans, belonging to the Furacão Azul – Blue Hurricane – group stay behind to shout abuse at dejected players.

When the referee finally blows full time it is near midnight, after which the remains of the crowd drift off into the hot tropical night. The stadium announcer reports the number of paying spectators as 593.

When the final whistle sounds at tomorrow’s Euro final, the countdown to the 2014 World Cup gets under way in earnest. Fans can start to look forward to soccer’s next big jamboree, which will be held in Brazil, home of o jogo bonito – the beautiful game of the five-time world champions.

Despite Amazonas’s weak local championship, Fifa has selected Manaus, the state capital, as one of 12 venues for the 2014 tournament. To stage three group games and a second-round match, the state government is pouring €200 million of public money into a new 44,000-seat stadium.

But in the far smaller Sesi stadium, local fans are sceptical about the benefits the World Cup will bring to their local game. Their clubs are broke, players’ salaries often go unpaid and crowds are tiny.

After Manaus’s four World Cup matches are over, none of them has any idea what will become of the new Arena Amazônia.

“This World Cup won’t do anything for football in Amazonas,” says João Paulo Brasil, a Furacão Azul leader. “They are throwing money away on a white-elephant stadium, but it will not do anything to help the game here, which is in terrible shape. It will be a copa for tourists; I think most local fans are indifferent.”

Though it pains a soccer man to say so, Amarildo Silva also believes it would have been better if Fifa had never come to Manaus and the state government had instead invested a small portion of what is being spent on the new stadium on reforming the game in Amazonas. “Clubs here do not have €40 to pay for a ref in a youth game. They only bring a few hundred fans to big games, so how can you expect them to play in a stadium for 44,000?” says the local soccer commentator and blogger. “The World Cup in Manaus will not be ‘for the good of the game’, like Fifa claims. Even worse, as a taxpayer, part of the debt to build the arena will be mine, and it is obvious that after the World Cup it will not be used for football. How many decades will we be paying for this?”

The Amazonas state government is dismissive of concerns that the arena will turn into a white elephant after the tournament is over. “It will not just be a football stadium but a multiuse venue that will hold conferences, shows and trade fairs,” says Alessandra Campelo da Silva, secretary of sport for Amazonas state.

She is a passionate advocate for the benefits that the World Cup will bring to Manaus and Amazonas. “For one month the whole world will be looking at us. Just the free marketing Brazil will get could be worth all the stadiums being built.” Like many Brazilian officials challenged on the value of staging the tournament, Campelo da Silva is armed with consultant reports she claims show the tournament could be worth €3.5 billion to Amazonas; the state’s planning department puts it at €4.5 billion.

But The Irish Times has spent 10 months requesting the reports on which such estimates are based. Despite assurances from officials that they can do so, they have not yet released the documents. Also unavailable is the report the state government says shows how the Arena Amazônia will be able to survive without an anchor tenant.

For critics of preparations for the World Cup in Brazil, such studies about the alleged benefits of big sporting events are a common ruse used to justify huge public investment in major sporting tournaments.

“It is a very clever sleight of hand, because they do these economic studies that use unrealistic multipliers, and these are the economic forecasts that are put forward by official agencies and become accepted, even though some of the estimates are insane,” says Christopher Gaffney, visiting professor in the graduate school of architecture and urbanism at Fluminense Federal University, in Rio de Janeiro, who has come to Brazil to observe preparations for the tournament. “Fifa are supposedly the guardians of the game, but when you look at the legacy in South Africa, and what is going to happen in Brazil, what we really see is a massive transfer of public wealth to private hands.”

He cites the case of Vancouver, which has seen a debt hangover from the 2010 Winter Olympics result in British Columbia’s having to cut education and health budgets. “If that happens in Vancouver, what is going to happen in cities like Rio, Salvador and Natal?”

So far Brazil has committed more than €10 billion in public money to preparing the country for the World Cup. Of this, €2.6 billion – triple the early estimates – is going on providing stadiums that match Fifa’s exacting demands, which are largely driven by television.

In return, Fifa estimates it will generate €2.8 billion from the 2014 World Cup, of which almost €1 billion will be profit. All profits made in Brazil will be tax-free, one of Fifa’s conditions for ceding a country the right to host the event.

It is impossible to know exactly how much of the projected €1 billion Fifa profit will be a return on the €200 million public investment in the new stadium in Manaus. What is known is that of the 3.5 million people who live in Amazonas, 630,000 survive on less than €1 a day. Despite a decade of solid economic growth in Brazil, crowds of poor people still gather around state-run soup kitchens in Manaus to buy a 40c subsidised lunch.

Even if the critics are proved wrong and the stadium does not become a white elephant, Amazonas’s government does not pretend that any revenues it generates will be used to pay off the €155 million loan it received from a state bank to build it. That will fall to taxpayers, which in Brazil’s regressive tax system largely means the poor. Paying off the stadium will thus inevitably mean less spending for schools, hospitals and public transport.

In the public hospital across the road from where the new 44,000-seater arena is being built, its president, Dr Nelson Fraiji, just smiles thinly when asked for this thoughts on the tournament. “Brazil is a rich country but is lacking in so many areas, and the World Cup just re-emphasises the feeling that the state spends little on things like health,” he says.

Others are blunter. “Fifa just wants to suck out as much wealth from us as it can, and our politicians are helping them,” says Hamilton Leão of the Amazonian Citizenship Institute, a local citizens’-rights group. “This World Cup is only diverting attention from the problems the state has in education, health and sanitation. It is the old concept of bread and circuses.”

Brazilian officials get prickly at the suggestion that the World Cup is detracting from efforts to reduce poverty. “Today Brazil has the capacity to invest in an event like this. 12 years ago it did not. The money going on the tournament is extra money. Nothing is being taken from social spending,” says Campelo da Silva.

But the extra-money argument gets short shrift from campaigners who say that public services in the state are in a permanent state of near crisis. Of the 12 cities hosting the World Cup, Manaus is the worst at treating its human waste, says Leão. Only 12 per cent of the city’s sewage is collected by the city’s network, and much of it is dumped untreated into the River Amazon. “Why is there no ‘extra’ money to deal with this?” he asks.

Late in the game How to make a point

Christopher Gaffney can list all the World Cup winners going back to Uruguay in 1930. “There are so many of us around the world who measure our lives in four-year increments,” he says. That raises a dilemma for the US academic, a vocal critic of the way the 2014 tournament is being organised.

So what is the conscientious fan to do if the next World Cup is indeed a “huge robbery” of the Brazilian people, as the country’s former striker Romário claims?

“Fans should come to Brazil, even though the event’s planning is all wrong, because the World Cup is part of our collective memory,” says Gaffney. “You want to support your team, but you should do it in a way that shows a consciousness about the event’s hidden costs.”

He suggests fans contact the campaigners in Brazil fighting the abuses being waged in the name of World Cup planning. “Fans should be aware of the human-rights abuses going on,” he adds. “In Rio de Janeiro alone, 30,000 people are going to lose their home as a result of the event. So how about a banner at international matches from ‘Irish Fans Against Forced Removals in Rio de Janeiro’?”

Gaffney also suggests fans hit Fifa and its corporate partners in the pocket by boycotting products from World Cup sponsors, such as Budweiser and McDonald’s. “You go to a stadium and buy your beer and sit there, but you never really know the true cost unless you are willing to find them out.” A good place to start is Gaffney’s blog, at

On Monday: the 2014 World Cup, Brazilian politics and corruption

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