Rio Buildings’ Collapse New Sign of World Cup Headache for Brazil

In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, the collapse of three buildings puts a stain on the country, reports Mac Margolis.

Ari Versiani, AFP / Getty Images

As the five-time soccer world champions ramp up to stage the premier event of the wildly popular sport, the heavens ought to be ablaze and the oceans parting. But with the countdown racing to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, that has hardly been the case.

Almost since 2007, when Brazil won the right to host the 2014 World Cup, the country’s relations with the Switzerland-based International Football Federation (FIFA) have been fraught. Construction work on stadiums, roads, and public transportation is lagging. The country’s airports are already operating at maximum capacity (a power shortage blacked out Rio de Janeiro’s international airport this week) and plans for their overhaul depend on a complex public bidding process that experts say is designed to leave contractors in a quagmire.

Even now, five years later, Brazilian lawmakers are still questioning the ground rules for the month-long event, and in recent months government officials have quibbled with football bureaucrats over everything from cut-rate tickets for the elderly and indigenous groups—a right written into the nation’s constitution—to beer sales at stadiums, in direct opposition to a national dry-games law.

As if all this weren’t headache enough, Brazilian officials now find themselves explaining an urban tragedy. If it had happened at any another time, the trio of office buildings that collapsed in downtown Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 25, leaving six confirmed dead and a dozen more missing, might have been written off as a heartbreaking accident. Instead, it is a stain on the public image of a nation on the rise, which is just beginning to sample the glory but also the glare of the international spotlight.

As rescue crews combed through the rubble for survivors today, and video footage of the calamity played on a continuous loop on television and the web, state and city officials were quick to reassure a shaken public that the disaster was an isolated incident, and that Latin America’s signature city was safe and secure. The collapse “is entirely unrelated to the preparations for the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Olympic Games and other events that are already part of the city’s calendar,” Rio’s City Hall said in a statement today.

Technically, they may be right. Thanks to diligent crimefighters, an oil boom and a reform-minded government, Rio has never looked better. But with the country poised to stage the World Cup and the Summer Olympics hot on its heels, Brazilians have also become hostages to the global attention they have sought. In the limelight, every glitch and wart becomes an eyesore for an international audience. The question on everyone’s mind: Can the land of futebol also pull off the biggest event of the world’s most popular sport?

FIFA and Brazil have done their best to put a happy face on their differences, and all sides voice their faith that everything will work out by the opening whistle in June 2014. Geneva named the retired hall-of-famer Ronaldo (leave it to Brazilians to put footballers on a first-name basis, its Brazilian organizer, and the sports minister Aldo Rebelo is scrambling to get the fractious Congress to finally pass a long-languishing bill setting the World Cup regulations. But with some 30 months to go before the ball starts to roll in São Paulo’s Itaquerão stadium, the strain is showing. Ronaldo’s onetime teammate, hall-of-famer Romário de Souza Faria, now a federal congressman, has gone public with his concerns over the Brazilian games, predicting that only 10 of the 12 stadiums around the country that are set to host matches will be built in time. “I think that [Brazil] won’t be 100 percent ready,” he told the Brazilian newsmagazine Istoé.

Brazil’s growing pains are also an issue. Thanks to a healthy economy and a burgeoning middle class with a taste for air travel, concern is growing that 14 of Brazil’s 20 key airports will be operating beyond capacity by 2014, according to a recent report by the independent economic think tank Ipea.

Brazilians are hardly novices to hosting major events. From diplomatic consorts, like the 1992 Earth Summit, to megabashes like Rock in Rio, Brazil has proven its ability to stage world-class gatherings. But the World Cup, which may draw up to a million tourists—a full 20 percent of Brazil’s annual flow—will be a test of another magnitude.

In a tournament featuring 32 national teams and 12 cities, many of which lack rudimentary infrastructure, the devil is in the logistics. “The stadiums will be built eventually,” says FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke. The challenge, he explained, is to orchestrate and execute a game plan for the World Cup, including a checklist of “some 20,000 tasks, from the signing of the contract to the finals.” This includes the challenge of moving thousands of journalists, players, operations personnel, sponsors, and security from one city to the next in the span of 24 hours. Much could go wrong. “It has never happened that five years into the process we are still discussing the rules,” Valcke admits.

Has all the glory gone to Brazil’s head? Or is FIFA, soccer’s international overlord, being imperially stubborn? “Beer will be sold in the stands,” says Valcke, noting that Budweiser (the brand is now owned by a Brazilian-Belgian multinational) is a global sponsor. “This is not a negotiating point.”

And without directly criticizing Rio, he said, “Every day you delay the necessary work is a day lost,” in a statement that needed no parsing. Meantime, Sepp Blatter, the powerful and often blunt FIFA worldwide president, bruised local pride when he recently stated that Russia was ahead of Brazil in its preparations for hosting 2018. “I can tell you that we are far, far advanced [in Russia],” he said from Moscow.

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Under fire, Blatter later backed down, protesting that he was “misunderstood” by the press. “I would like to reiterate we are convinced Brazil will organize a fantastic FIFA World Cup 2014 on schedule,” he said. In the world’s most popular sport, a clash of wills may be only par for the pitch. All the more so when soccer’s most famous side squares off against the most powerful sports bureaucracy on earth. With luck, once the matches begin, the tensions will subside with the suds on a cold Budweiser. Odds are the contest on the grass will be the easiest part of pulling off this World Cup.