Brazil still coming to terms with failures of its World Cup construction efforts

Bad public administration blamed for 2014 infrastructure improvements still unfinished

Graffiti related to the Brazilian national football team, striker Neymar and the 2018 World Cup, in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Fabio Teixeira/AFP/Getty Images

On a drizzly winter afternoon there are few workers visible on the construction site that will eventually become the metro station serving Congonhas, São Paulo’s busy domestic airport.

Part of the No 17 “Gold” line, a monorail of 18km, in 2010 the station was included as part of the package of infrastructure improvements promised for the 2014 World Cup. But to date none of the stations has been delivered, with inauguration now expected only next year.

The seemingly endless delay is a source of deep frustration for some of the airport's workers. In the metro's absence they are left reliant on the city's buses, which are often snarled up in the notorious paulistano traffic.

“On a good day it takes me 45 minutes to get to work on the bus, depending on the traffic. But once the metro is ready it will be just 20 or even 15 minutes,” says airport cleaner Normelia Rodrigues Lima.



She has no doubt about where responsibility for the delay lies: “Bad public administration. Things here don’t work. Politicians should deliver on their word because it is us workers who depend on public transport so these delays are disappointing.”

On the eve of Russia hosting football's greatest jamboree Brazil is still coming to terms with the failures of its own effort four years ago. Airport extensions and new bus corridors and metro lines were all used as justification for hosting the tournament and the billions of euro in public money for 12 new stadiums this would require.

But while Fifa got the new stadiums it demanded, Brazil’s citizens were left short changed. São Paulo’s monorail is one of a litany of unfinished or cancelled infrastructure projects in eleven of the country’s 12 host cities and far from being the worst case.

A light rail line in the host city of Cuiabá had already consumed more than €200 million and yet only a third of the project was completed when work was halted. The state government has since been paying millions a year to store the 280 carriages that might never carry actual passengers. In the host city of Manaus work never even started on a proposed monorail or bus corridor.


"The infrastructure legacy from our World Cup is as bad as the 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semi-finals," says Adriano Pires, president of the Brazilian Infrastructure Centre. "The system is defective. The construction companies have the capacity to deliver these sorts of projects. But these don't happen as they should because of the promiscuous relations between the state and private sector."

In São Paulo the state government responsible for delivering the monorail says "it is not correct" to link it with the World Cup because the project's delivery date was uncoupled from the tournament in 2012. That decision followed the abandonment of plans to refurbish the city's biggest stadium, on the proposed line, and build a new one instead in another part of the city.

This new stadium in Itaquera, which eventually hosted the opening ceremony, was a "present" for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, according to Emílio Odebrecht, the patriarch of the construction company that built it. It was during Lula's presidency that Brazil secured the rights to host the World Cup and with the new stadium in Itaquera he was finally able to deliver a new home for his beloved Corinthians, São Paulo's most popular club.

Corruption probe

But the stadium, which came in 50 per cent over budget, is now caught up in a corruption probe. In February a federal judge ruled that its public financing was “offensive to the principles, values and elemental rules of public law” and ordered Corinthians and Odebrecht to return €100 million to a state bank.

When Brazil bid to host the tournament it promised private financing would bankroll a new generation of stadiums. But when as predicted this failed to materialise the state stepped in. This has almost inevitably resulted in a series of corruption investigations. Itaquera is among 10 of the 12 stadiums used four years ago that is now caught up in criminal probes.

The most notorious case is in the capital Brasília. Despite costing somewhere around €700 million – by some calculations the third most expensive sports stadium in the world – the Mané Garrincha today is semi-abandoned, with no anchor tenant, the biggest of the white elephants calved for Brazil's World Cup, a herd that also includes the grounds in Manaus and Cuiabá.

‘Smash and grab’

It is because of cases such as these that geographer Christopher Gaffney defines Brazil's hosting of the event as a case of "smash and grab capitalism", used to justify the transfer of massive amounts of public wealth to the country's elite.

“It is very easy to make promises to convince the public that they should be on board with whatever projects are associated with a big event like the World Cup. But we forget who made the promises and neglect to put accountability mechanisms on them when they make them,” says Gaffney, who specialises in the impact of mega-events on host cities and countries.

“In Brazil the case is much more egregious because there is such a deficit of urban transportation projects and the opportunity costs are multiplied many times more because of the country’s structural inequality.”

But while there is little chance of Brazil recovering much of the public money it spent to so little effect on projects linked to the tournament, there has been a measure of justice delivered to some of those involved in bringing the event to the country. The head of the Brazilian football confederation during the tournament currently sits in a Brooklyn lock-up awaiting sentencing after his conviction in a US court for his role in a Fifa corruption scandal. His immediate predecessor and successor cannot leave Brazil for fear of arrest by Interpol.


Lula currently resides in a police cell in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba after his conviction in the first of the many corruption cases against him. A previous tenant in the building was Emílio Odebrecht's son Marcelo who admitted running a massive bribery scheme that corrupted most of Brazil's political elite. The two previous governors of Brasília who oversaw the Mané Garrincha have been detained in the investigation into its financing.

But perhaps the most enduring legacy of Brazil’s decision to host the tournament is the endless political crisis that has roiled the country for the last five years.

In 2013 nationwide protests spontaneously erupted, initially organised against a rise in bus fares in São Paulo but with anger quickly focusing on the discrepancy between lavish public spending on the World Cup and the dearth of funds for public health and education. Ever since Brazil’s citizens have been openly hostile towards its political class which has failed to recover the poise it lost in 2013 leading some to raise concerns about the future of the country’s democracy.

"2013 was the spark that began a lot of things that have happened over the last five years," says David Fleischer. Asked if the country's authorities has learned any lessons from the experience the professor of politics at the University of Brasília pauses for a moment. "Well, federal police and prosecutors learned a lot from the World Cup."