Football distracting from grotesque reality of Brazil
Letter from Salvador - Host nation's inequality and poverty is the rotten truth at heart of this World Cup
Published 18/06/2014 | 02:30
We've had ourselves a fun few days in Salvador, not least on Friday when the Dutch blew our minds.
Gazing out at the South Atlantic Ocean, Salvador became a slave-trade hub when the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century and it remains very much the centre of Afro-Brazilian culture; full of hustle and bustle, music, sunshine, god-awful traffic and a daunting kind of vibrancy which comes to feel very normal, very quickly.
The poverty here is inescapable. And the biggest cliches are borne out in the most cliched of ways.
A crumbling favela sits metres from the east stand of the gleaming, glorious Arena Fonte Nova. These slums more than live up to their desperate reputation and what's more, they exist in the face of mind-boggling inequality. Some €11bn has been spent on hosting this World Cup. It was promised initially that public money would fund infrastructure and badly needed services, with private money footing the bulk of the stadia bill.
That private money never really materialised and of the 167 infrastructure projects promised, around 70 have been finished.
Salvador's badly needed bus corridor has not been delivered. A 9km journey took me 2 hours and 45minutes by taxi last week on account of gridlock.
The city did, to be fair, get its metro, which happens to be the world's shortest and most useless metro, consisting of a whopping four stops. Construction started back in 1999. This is a country where things don't really get done, unless of course it's for FIFA or the elite. Some particularly dubious politicking means we have 12 host cities, instead of the required minimum of eight.
Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, the country's political capital, cost $900m. Amidst allegations of fraudulent billing, it ranks second only to Wembley as the world's most expensive football stadium.
What's worse, many of the clubs inheriting these stadia struggle to attract 2,000 fans to games. Anger is palpable.
I went to a favela bar on opening night when Brazil beat Croatia and the party was great. Whilst Irish ballads are the most cathartic of expressions, the music here is rooted in escapism and rhythm. The football works similarly. But I must confess it has felt somewhat grotesque travelling to the stadium each day in my air-conditioned media shuttle bus. There is something deeply and inescapably rotten at the heart of this whole venture.
What was conceivably an opportunity to improve the country has been spectacularly wasted. And while Robin van Persie's genius distracts the world, being here makes it harder to forget or accept.
I watched England-Italy in a hostel pub on beautiful Avenida Oceanica, Barra, on Saturday. Just before kick-off a boy of five or six came in selling nuts on a tray.
Nobody was buying. He slipped and fell on some steps before being helped up and sent back out to dark streets he shouldn't be anywhere near.
It's hard to know what the World Cup means for him. Meanwhile we turned back to events at Manaus, distracted mercifully from the grotesque.