The World Cup starts in just a few months. But Dan Moss, an Australian freelance journalist in Cuiaba, says Brazil is nowhere near ready to host the showcase of the world game.
Walking down the street in Cuiaba’s main shopping district, I’m blown away as a truck built for the annual Carnival, with huge speakers built into an elevated platform, rolls past. On the side a homewares and electrical chain advertises that it will bring the Cup to your house (via one of its TVs). Aboard the float a man screams repetitive slogans through the enormous speakers as Brazil’s ubiquitous mascot — the tall and tanned, young and lovely girls from anywhere but Ipanema — wave flags and look extremely bored.
It seems this is the only part of Cuiaba (pronounced Koo-ya-ba), the capital of Mato Grosso state, prepared for the World Cup. Australia will play Chile here on June 13.
A ditch excavated throughout the city bears witness to the slow progress of preparations for the Cup. In the local paper Folha do Estado, Brazil’s federal government continues to boast in advertisements that it has funded two projects: to build a $700 million light rail between the airport and the city centre, and an airport extension. In a rare moment of communication about Cup preparations, Mauricio Guimaraes, the head of the Extraordinary Secretariat for the World Cup for the Mato Grosso state government, told the Associated Press the light rail project would be finished by the end of 2014 and denied it was linked to the World Cup, though the project used special funds allotted to Cup preparations.
A double-page spread in the newspaper tells another tale to the one told in the advert. Local motoring bodies are worried about a clash between buses and taxis due to the roadworks. The buzzword is capacity. The city of 550,000 is expecting 80,000 visitors in two-and-a-half months and has a big ditch to contend with instead of being able to efficiently transport people through the city. As I sat in a cafe in the colonial part of Cuiaba reading the paper I asked the man in his 50s behind the counter serving snacks and coffee what he thought of the Cup. “Tsk,” he said, shaking his head.
Cuiabanos are sick of the disruption. Diane, a woman in her mid-30s, says preparations have taken too long and the Cup is a hassle. “I hate the Cup.”
The next day, driving a rented car through Cuiaba, I had an argument with a GPS. It wanted me to turn right near the unfinished Arena Pantanal (pictured above), where workers are labouriously laying turf and making holes with jack-hammers, but the way was blocked due to the light rail ditch, and there were no detour signs. Outside the car the stadium was blaring with sad country music and was still fenced off.
The project is a joint venture between construction companies Mendez Junior and Santa Barbara, which filed for bankruptcy in March 2013. A Reuters report from February said a fire in the basement of one of the stadium’s grandstands caused structural damage. A report by the independent Public Ministry of Mato Grosso obtained by Reuters said the damage was worse than previously reported. Mato Grosso officials said damage to the stadium was fixed, and that no games would be held if the construction were unsafe.
Sceptical Cuiabanos doubt the light rail project will finish at all once the tournament is over, as the political urgency will have faded. If the projects in Cuiaba are not finished as is expected, tourists to the city will be greeted by an unfinished airport (pictured top) and a hairy ride through detours on badly potholed roads. It will be an embarrassment for Brazil at its debutante ball in cities across the country that have over-promised and under-delivered on major infrastructure projects.
The government of President Dilma Rousseff is facing other challenges. Criticised for not spending enough on roads and other infrastructure but giving handouts for the very poor, Rousseff is heading into next year’s election in a tenuous position. She may be praying for the euphoria of a win for the Brazil team, as commentators have suggested, to win office again. But whoever is in government next must make tough cuts to transport subsidies to fuel and bus ticket prices while controlling inflation, currently at 6%.
In the middle of last year before the Confederations Cup, a World Cup curtain-raiser, mass protests hit Brazil as thousands of middle-class people displayed their anger at the $8 billion spent on Cup preparations. There is talk here that the World Cup will be a moment to voice their anger again, as it simmers on Twitter and Facebook. But if there are plans it is being kept secret for fear the government will disrupt the protests.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter scrapped speeches from the World Cup opening, which the BBC suggested was due to fears of another public display of disaffection. “We hope that the Cup will play a part in calming down the social unrest that we experienced during the Confederations Cup,” Blatter told the DPA news agency in early March.