On the Bench: Brasil

In less than three months, the world’s eyes will be cast firmly on Brazil as the World Cup gets underway on June 12. While there’s certainly a lot to look forward to in terms of the action on the pitch, it’s what’s been happening in the build-up to this tournament that is perhaps more important.

It was way back in 2007 that Brazil was announced as the host nation. It was certainly a great moment for the country, given its rich history with the game, having won this tournament five times. But as we close in on the world’s biggest sporting spectacle outside the Olympics — which, interestingly enough, will be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 — the initial enthusiasm has mellowed significantly.

This tournament comes at a time of great unrest in Brazil, dating back at least a year. We saw some pretty strong evidence of this during the Confederations Cup, the warm-up event held in the host country a year before the World Cup. Much of the time, it was the protesting crowds outside the grounds getting more attention than the action taking place inside, as Brazil rolled through the tournament. After all, the country had spent billions over the last few years trying to make everything look up to standard, leaving the citizens in their wake.

The result? The main stadium in Sao Paulo was hit with a crane collapse that killed two people and set construction back. The stadium in Curitiba was almost axed last month, after a judge ordered a construction suspension in October due to several safety concerns. Manaus’ ground, already criticized for its isolation — a three-plus hour flight from any other stadium in a hot, dry region of northern Brazil — recently opened for domestic competition but is already experiencing major problems with the grass. On the flip-side though, we have the Maracana, the showpiece stadium in Rio, which hosted the Confederations Cup final last summer and is a fantastic redesign of the stadium that hosted the final in 1950.

There’s also the issue of what might happen after the World Cup. Why is this question important? We can look no further than World Cup 2010, which was held in South Africa. That tournament was a fantastic spectacle, given that this was a lesser-known nation rising up to put on a wonderful show for the audiences both in the stands and on their couches.

And now? Last season, in South Africa’s top-level soccer league, saw an average attendance of around 6,700. When you consider that the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, home of local giants Kaizer Chiefs, holds 94,000 yet draws less than 15,000 per game, it leaves something to be desired. The Mbombela stadium was built on land sold for the equivalent of one U.S. dime, displaced an entire local community, and is now used primarily for rugby and not soccer. It seems this is the case across the board in South Africa, leaving the nation back where it started before the tournaments, just with a few big hunks of metal taking up more space that was usable for normal activities.

Could the same thing happen in Brazil? It’s hard to say, given how soccer-crazy the nation is. But even then, the country averaged less than 15,000 per game in its top-flight league last year. The Maracana hosted the 1950 World Cup final which was attended, officially, by almost 200,000 people who watched Brazil get stunned by Uruguay, dubbed the “Maracanazo.” Yes, that’s five zeroes.

Such a thing would be unheard of these days, with the stadium capacity set a bit under 80,000, but current occupants Flamengo averaged less than one third of that “smaller” number. Heck, Manaus doesn’t even have a team in the Brazilian Serie A, the top division. What are they supposed to do with a stadium that big in the middle of nowhere? Given how much money is being taken into consideration in building these stadiums, plus the dire situation the country was already in, how on Earth can we expect the country to rebound? Especially when there’s even more that has to be done with the Olympics due in two years?

I think a pretty telling part of the story is that a number of big-name figures in Brazilian soccer, including former strikers Rivaldo and Romario, are casting this experience in a negative light. During the Confed Cup, the former blasted the event as a waste of money that could be used to fix the health and education systems of Brazil. He also praised the people of Brazil for finally starting to stand up for themselves, in hopes of change.

Romario, who spent a season in Miami and is now a politician, put out a great article in British newspaper The Guardian around the time of the Confed Cup, condemning the World Cup as a “crippling” adventure. He cited the preparations for this summer as a spur in kick starting the mobilization of the protests, blaming the “beautiful game” for distracting the nation from the real problems in their country. From shoddy planning to major delays, budget rises and shifting political overtones — Brazil elected a new president between 2007 and now — we come to perhaps the worst of it all: FIFA are the only ones set to profit. This could really tarnish the legacy of the world’s most popular sport’s biggest event, even if the host nation were to triumph at the Maracana on July 13.

I’ve already written about the situation in Qatar in a past On the Bench, as they’re now more than four years into the 12-plus years they have to prepare for their World Cup saga. That whole ordeal goes deep, but the circumstances are far different. Qatar’s not a soccer hotbed — though it’s pretty hot in general — and it’s doubtful the nation’s economic structure would fall apart because of this event.

This is Brazil, legends in soccer. From Pele and Garrincha to Zico and Socrates, Romario and Ronaldo, Kaka and Ronaldinho and the new generation led by Neymar, the “beautiful game” was theirs before it was anyone else’s. The country would be devastated if it lose the World Cup in its own stadiums. More importantly, though, is what FIFA and its money leave behind, if anything.

I’m not here to make a political statement on behalf of Brazil. That should be left to people who know more about the full situation, like Romario. I’m just saying that wherever you’re watching the World Cup, be it from in the stands in Brazil or your couch or someone else’s couch, ask people about it. If you’re in Brazil, talk to Brazilians. If you’re here but have Brazilian friends, ask them. Ask people who might know about what’s going on.

Do some research.

Then ask yourself this: all the glitz and glamor of the month-long soccer showcase, the drama, the money that went into it, the great times you might have with family and friends — was it worth crippling an entire nation?

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