Wed, Feb 19, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Brazil’s World Cup courts disaster as delays, protests and deaths mount

A lot of work needs to be done to unify the government and public’s vision of what the tournament will bring — and time is running out

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Observer, BRASILIA

Illustration: Mountain people

Another week, another storm of tear gas and rubber bullets at a FIFA World Cup host city in Brazil. This time, the clashes were in the capital, Brasilia, where 15,000 protesters from the Landless Workers Movement marched from the Mane Garrincha soccer stadium to the Palacio do Planalto state office of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Riot police using batons and tear gas fought off several attempts to invade the building. The demonstrators threw stones and tore down railings which they used as weapons. In the fierce fighting, 12 protesters and 30 police officers were injured.

Rousseff was not in her office at the time, but this latest explosion of unrest is yet another headache for the president in what is supposed to be one of the most triumphant, feel-good years in Brazil’s history.

Hosting the World Cup was intended to show that Brazil — the land long condemned as the “country of the future — that always will be” — had finally arrived. It seemed a shoo-in for success. The five World Cup wins of the Selecao, Brazil’s national soccer team, are arguably the greatest source of national pride among the country’s population of 200 million. Sure, given the nation’s relaxed lifestyle, there were always bound to be a few glitches along the way, but it was taken as a given that the land of carnival and samba would mark the tournament by throwing the best party ever.

Those glib assumptions have taken a battering in the past eight months, starting with the biggest street protest in a generation during the Confederations Cup in June last year and rising in violent, nerve-jangling intensity to the point where — just four months from kick-off — people are still being killed in protests, workers are dying in the rush to complete unfinished stadiums and the mood of the nation is far closer to unease than alegria — joy.

In the past month, the news has grown worse and the criticism sharper. Five stadiums that were supposed to be ready at the end of December last year are still under construction, prompting panic among FIFA executives. Last month, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said Brazil was further behind schedule than any host since he joined the global soccer organization in 1975, even though it has had the most time to prepare.

One stadium — the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba — is now in the last-chance saloon. Organizers in the city have two days left to prove they have accelerated the pace of building or FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke has warned the venue could be kicked out of the tournament. That is almost unthinkable given the logistical nightmare of finding a new venue at this late stage, but that the matter was even raised in public underscores the frustrations the delays have generated.

The dire progress is also at least partly to blame for several deaths. Of the six workers who have been killed in stadium construction accidents, four have lost their lives since late November last year as deadline pressure picked up. The latest casualty, Antonio Jose Pita Martins, was reported dead on Feb. 7, crushed in Amazonia Arena in Manaus where three people have died preparing the stadium where England will play their opening match against Italy. With no major domestic league teams in the city, the venue is thought unlikely to be filled again for soccer after July.

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