Romario’s striking criticism puts World Cup spending in context
Former striker questions the massive outlay of funds on a tournament in a country marred by widespread poverty
The Maracana stadium in the backround, framed by one of Rio de Janeiro’s notorious favelas. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Name a famous Brazilian. No, grow up. Not that kind of Brazilian: someone world-famous from that vast melting pot of humanity at the other side of the world which everyone instinctively likes without quite working out why. And it can’t be a footballer. Or a car driver. Or a super-model. No, it has to be a politician, an inventor, a soldier, someone who makes the front-page rather than the back, or page three. Not so easy, is it.
And that fits in with the stereotype we have of the country, all Samba and football, beaches and booty, laid-back and cool. No one puts Brazil and organisation together. Just as no one puts Ireland and abstinence together. Or Ireland and ethics. Or Ireland and . . . you get the picture. What Brazil means to the world is fun, if you take away the gun-crime, disappearing rain-forest and endemic corruption.
But fun isn’t necessarily the primary requirement in organising massive world events, and they don’t come any more massive that next year’s World Cup or the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. In sporting terms, the coming few years will be ‘Carnival,’ hopefully. Brazil felt the World Cup was its due, and why not. Football and Brazil go together. And it’s South America’s turn. But it actively sought out the Olympics as a signal to the world of its increasing financial power and self-confidence. Having got both, the question now is can the fun-boys deliver on the mundane requirement to stage them properly.
It will be fascinating then to read the reviews from the Confederations Cup which begins on Saturday. For once, what happens off the field will be much more important than what happens on.
No one really cares about the Confederations Cup, supposedly an eight-team mini World-Cup which is an end-of-season drag for heavyweights like Spain, Italy and the home-team, and a wide-eyed, autograph-collecting trip to Vegas for makeweights like the Oceania champions, Tahiti. A lot of people, though, will care about what kind of logistical fist is made of hosting it. Even us.
Because Brazil is huge, which everyone knows, in a vague way, but fail to really appreciate. It’s America huge, Australia huge; only with a transport system that makes Limerick Junction look like Gare Du Nord, a not an insignificant problem considering the distances between the dozen cities which will host World Cup games next year.
Half of those will be used for the Confederations Cup, including the famous Maracana in Rio which came within an ace of failing a safety review before the recent England game, a match that was eventually allowed go ahead after a document mislaid due to a bureaucratic cock-up was suddenly uncovered in the nick of time. Remind you of any place?
Other games will be played in Brasilia, Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador and Belo Horizonte. Four of those cities are on the coast. The capital, Brasilia, is inland, but not as far into the interior as say Cuiaba and Manaus which will be hosting World Cup games next year. And since getting around this vast country can be a cow at the best of times, improving the infrastructure so it holds up when the world visits will be challenging.
Brazilians have a reputation for getting shirty when it comes to Gringos having a pop. Fascinated by what the world thinks of them – again, remind you of anyone – they get very uptight at any response other than Brazil is the greatest place on earth. It’s very Australian, actually, in that both countries present the adolescent front of being the centre of the world while underneath it all also being very aware the rest of the planet carries on quite happily with only the vaguest sense of these massive geographical colours hanging down there at the bottom of the globe.
Unlike Australia however, Brazil’s political growing pains are painfully intense. Less than 30 years after a military dictatorship, complete with all its death-squad horror, there is now the sort of money floating around that makes corruption all but inevitable, which in turn contributes to a gaping inequality gap between rich and poor.
The Maracana problem was only the latest in a series of stories about delays in relation to stadium construction, problems that have resulted in massive over-spends, which in turn has provoked accusations of kick-backs and bureaucratic incompetence. None of it sounds encouraging but with billions involved, there will be no shortage of official will to pull things together. Because of those billions, and national prestige, what should be inevitable questions about hugely expensive sports events being staged in a country that has nearly 10 per cent of its population living on less than $2 a day will probably continue to be sidelined. Just as they were in South Africa in 2010. But at least one Brazilian politician has piped up.
The legendary Romario, now an MP, built his football career on opportunism in the penalty area but isn’t opportunist in his consistent critique of Brazil’s World Cup preparations. He continues to point out the discrepancy between pouring billions into stadium concrete, railway lines and airports while millions continue to live in desperate poverty. That’s a continual reality that no tournament will disguise – even a World Cup or an Olympic Games.