Brazil flagPerhaps the most alarming statement in the war of words that erupted last week between FIFA and the Brazilian footballing authorities came on Friday, when the CBF’s very own Ozymandias, Ricardo Texeira, (“two vast and trunkless legs of stone / stand in the desert / whose frown / and wrinkled lip / and sneer of cold command…”) pronounced himself entirely thrilled with Brazil’s preparations for the 2014 World Cup.

Texeira, who brushes away corruption scandals and criticism as idly as a bon vivant sweeps morsels of foie gras from his lapel, proclaimed that Brazil would put on an “untouchable and unforgettable” Mundial.

The real row had started a few days before, when FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke stated that Brazil’s World Cup preparations “needed a kick up the backside”. Hotel accommodation was woefully inadequate, notably in Manaus, and access to a number of stadiums, particularly Salvador’s Fonte Nova, was unsatisfactory. In general, Valcke said, Brazil seemed to be “more concerned with winning the World Cup than hosting it.”

A response from Brazil’s Minister of Sport, the rather hangdog Aldo Rebelo, wasn’t long in coming. “As a result of these unacceptable statements, the Brazilian government no longer recognises Mr. Valcke as FIFA spokesman”, was Mr. Rebelo’s official line. He went on to state that Valcke would not be welcome in Brazil during FIFA’s next inspection visit in the middle of March.

Valcke, in return, described Rebelo’s reaction as “infantile”.

Such blustering is unfortunate, and only serves to make forming an accurate picture of Brazil’s World Cup preparations more difficult. In truth, it is all a bit like the curate’s egg – good in parts, rotten in others. Whether the good parts are enough to save the whole remains to be seen.

Major problems exist in the south, something that will be viewed wryly by the rest of the country, given the prescribed view that this is the most organised and developed part of Brazil, used to propping up its back country northern cousins. In Curitiba, initial financing delays meant work on the Arena Baixada started horribly late, and even today, despite being one of Brazil’s most modern arenas, considerable work is still required to make the stadium Copa ready. It is still in the phase of demolishing existing structures and laying foundations.

As bad, if not worse, is the rebuilding project down in Porto Alegre. Work on Internacional’s Beira Rio ground has been stalled for over a year, the result of an unholy brouhaha between construction company Andrade Gutierrez and the project’s chief financing bank, Barisul. Just last week, however, the pipes of peace were smoked, and work can now restart.

Up in the nordeste, Natal, for so long the lame duck of host cities, seems finally to be making some progress, with the first of 800 pillars to be used in the construction put in place last month. The completion date of December 2013 remains alarmingly tight, however.

Both Rio and Manaus had completed 35% of stadium work by the end of February. According to a recent report sent by Rebelo to FIFA, the capital of Amazonas, along with Salvador and Recife, is “slightly behind schedule”. Recife and Salvador are likely to find out next month if they will be allowed to host games in the Confederations Cup, scheduled for 2013.

The battle that raged between FIFA, São Paulo city council, and São Paulo FC, owners of the Morumbi, paralysed São Paulo’s building project for almost two years. Now that the Mundial stadium is to be Corinthians next home, the spanking new Arena de Itaquera, building work is continuing apace, with 1430 workers toiling across three daily shifts. Again, however, the delivery date of December 2013 does not allow much room for manoeuvre.

A shiny gold star at least goes to Fortaleza, whose World Cup stadium is the closest to completion. The rebuilt 66,000 seater, wind-powered, Castelão stadium is 60% ready, and should be finished by the end of this year. Belo Horizonte, Cuiabá and Brasilia, too, seem, generally speaking, to be on track.

To the observer, such epic delays are both incomprehensible and at the same time all too easy to understand. For all the progress that has been made in recent years, Brazil remains a developing nation whose economy is growing faster than the infrastructure that must support it. This creates its own problems, particularly in relation to transport and availability of materials. Education is also playing catch up, and complaints are often heard about a lack of suitably trained engineers, though this tends to occur more in residential construction than stadium building.

Just as serious, working conditions and levels of pay, particularly among less skilled employees, are not always all they should be. This leads to worker frustration, and subsequently strikes, which have hindered almost all of the stadium projects at some point, notably those in Rio, Belo Horizonte and Recife.

There are historical factors at play here too. Brazil is a country which has, politically speaking, grown up with a vested interest culture. Decision making processes at all levels are bogged down by layers of endless committees, sub-committees, and bureaucracy, all populated by dozens of interested parties. Following the presidential elections in 2010, 22 political parties were represented in the Brazilian congress, with 15 in the senate. Such fragmentation does not make for streamlined government, and provides plenty of scope for less than scrupulous fingers to be inserted into unsuspecting pies. In football it is no different. Those in power in the CBF are in thrall, to a greater or lesser degree, to the country’s 27 state footballing federations, each run by a trusted ally who must be kept sweet if one is to maintain one’s power base.

Yet despite the delays, and grave concerns over hotel and airport capacities, it remains extremely unlikely that the World Cup itself will be threatened. Budgets will spiral out of control, there will be panic aplenty near the finish line, and airports and road systems will be more chaotic than they might have been had things been done better from the outset. But, if needs be, workers will toil throughout the night (overtime payments will be found from somewhere, most likely the public purse), and, by the opening ceremony, everyone will be able to forget about strikes, funding and stadium delays, and concentrate on the football. In short – not ideal by a long way, but it’ll do.

That it has turned out this way is to a certain extent unsurprising. Such last gasp solution-finding (not to be confused with lethargy) is often the Brazilian way. A historical lack of organisation leads to a sense that leaving things to the last minute is an acceptable part of time management. Everything takes longer than it should, runs the thinking, but the time is there, so why not use it? While this is understandably the antithesis of FIFA’s planning vision, things usually work out satisfactorily enough. Usually.

Last week’s barney also tells us something else about Brazil and its relations with the rest of the world, particularly with countries and organisations perceived as being part of the mythical (and now possibly erroneous) block of paises ricos, or rich countries. Brazil’s relationship with major European powers, and the USA, is complicated, and it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that certain underlying suspicions are being transferred over to relations with FIFA.

While Brazil is a now a fully-fledged, grown-up global diplomatic player, there remains a certain chippiness in its dealings with those perceived as bearing the stains of colonialism or global power-mongering. Easy enough to understand, given the country’s historical relationships with A Fora, or The Outside – beginning with the dubious legacy left by the Portuguese colonial era, continuing through the murky involvement of the CIA in the early years of the military dictatorship, and remaining even today with concerns over the sometimes shady role of foreign enterprise in the Amazon.

As a result, Brazilians are fearsomely sensitive when it comes to outside criticism or worse still, outside intervention. In Germany, for example, FIFA’s hands-on role (some might say meddling) when it comes to World Cup preparation might be seen as, at worst, a tiresome inconvenience. In Brazil, it is at best Europe Knows Best intellectual neo-colonialism, and at worst a threat to sovereignty.

FIFA would do well to remember this, then, if further strife is to be avoided. Rebelo may be wrong about a great many things, but it is clear to anyone that grandstanding statements such as “Brazil needs a kick up the backside” can only aggravate. A better sense of cultural differences would be helpful too – a great deal of time and hot air was wasted recently in semantic nit-picking, as the Brazilian government argued that cheaper match tickets should be made available to students (such discounts are an ingrained part of Brazilian everyday life), whereas FIFA wanted to allow a category of cheaper tickets simply to Brazilians, without restricting them to students.

Brazil, on the other hand, would probably benefit from a more mature appreciation of political roughhousing, and a greater belief in its own global weight. In short, that a close working relationship with FIFA is the price that must be paid for hosting the World Cup, and that not every poorly considered outburst needs to be taken personally.

Note: at time of writing Mr. Valcke has apologised for his comments, blaming that trusty steed, faulty translation. Undeterred, Mr. Rebelo has sent a letter to Sepp Blatter officially demanding Valcke’s removal from his post, while Marco Aurelio Garcia, an advisor to Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, has called Mr. Valcke “a scoundrel”. And that’s a generous translation.

By James Young

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