Sunday 19 November 2017

Political turmoil may wreck hopes of carnival at World Cup

The stadium in Sao Paulo which will host the opening World Cup game on Thursday
The stadium in Sao Paulo which will host the opening World Cup game on Thursday

Paul Hayward

Here in Sao Paulo the question hangs. Will Brazilians be for or against this World Cup?

At the stadium where the hosts will kick off the tournament against Croatia on Thursday, there was intense scurrying on a day when a court ruled the current metro strikes illegal and threatened unions with a 100,000 Reals (€30,000) fine a day if they refuse to return to work.

The convergence of fresh FIFA corruption allegations and the mad dash to stop this 2014 World Cup slipping into logistical chaos has rendered the Brazilian carnival far more complicated than anyone could have expected when the country was awarded the tournament for the first time since 1950.

All the myths and legends of Brazilian football were meant to dance on to the pitch and set the old love for football in a new context of miraculous economic transformation.

Brazilians are the first people in World Cup history to object to football transferring huge sums from the public purse into the hands of corporations, stadium builders and FIFA, who are beset by scandal over Qatar 2022.

The citizens of Rio and Sao Paulo are the first to draw a direct connection between FIFA's gigantism and overpriced public transport and inadequate schools and hospitals.

Many view this World Cup as a ruse to redirect wealth from the poor to the rich and think it obscene that €2.45bn can be spent on football stadiums in a country peppered with favelas.

Brazilians are refusing to play the role of maraca-shaking, samba-dancing extras. And now they have a choice to make.

Strikes and widespread demonstrations could yet paralyse this World Cup.

Many will say that the blame would then lay with FIFA and the Brazilian government, who have used paramilitary police to 'pacify' many favelas and preached the gospel of infrastructure transformation.

This week in Sao Paulo half of all underground stations were closed and this vast city was close to gridlock as transport workers demanded a 10pc pay increase.

Commuters stormed the Itaquera station next to the stadium where Brazil confront Croatia under suffocating expectation.


Sao Paulo's attitude to the tournament is likely to set the tone across Brazil for the next five weeks.

Drive east for 45 minutes from the city centre (more like two hours on a working day) and the sprawl gives way to a gleaming white structure where workmen on cherry-pickers screw welcome messages to the walls of stands and harassed FIFA officials virtually jog through their checklist of tasks.

Inside the Corinthians Arena, which holds 68,000 and will stage six games, the beer fridges are still empty, the tables still piled up on concourses. The mood, though, is surprisingly cheerful.

Brazil's first home World Cup game since 1950 will take place in a brightly painted white shell, with just enough home comforts to make it viable as a place to welcome the world.

The temporary stand at one end of the ground was always meant to be temporary. Less excusable is the elaborate and precarious looking scaffold bridge that will carry spectators over the main road.

This curtain-raising venue is incompatible, of course, with all our outmoded images of what Brazilian football looks like.

The fantasy was that everything would feel like the Maracana in its golden era, with song, dance and spontaneity.

The modern World Cup has consigned mass participation and crowd fervour to history. Or so we fear.

On Thursday we will find out whether the natural Brazilian love of football can still express itself in an arena that was built to offer a Fifa-defined entertainment experience.

We must hope so. Certainly the blood stirred on a visit to the stadium on this warm Sunday afternoon, as volunteers held up the flags of Brazil and Croatia and the host country's anthem (one of the best) boomed over the tannoy as workmen slumped to draw on cigarettes.

This touchingly modest scene belied the opening ceremony overkill to come. It reminded us that nobody can kill the beauty of two countries coming together to fire the first shots of a World Cup: especially when one is wearing the buttercup yellow of Brazil. If returning the World Cup here was a sacred duty, sending it to Russia in 2018 and Qatar four years later is pure economic expansionism, and FIFA's attempts to portray itself as the friend of football will not be helped by the spectacle of its panjandrums assembling for this week's Congress.

When Diego Maradona is looking down his nose at you, you know you have problems.

Maradona has spoken of "huge bribes" in world football and has demanded that FIFA be "accountable".

Another sign of trouble is when Adidas and Sony assume the role of moral guardians, issuing enigmatic press releases about how concerned they are about bribery. Adidas is synonymous with FIFA.

These huge companies fret about reputational damage only at the point where suspicions enter the global mainstream and therefore threaten their sales.

Sponsors are not to be taken seriously as ethical goalkeepers, though any pressure is welcome, in a roundabout way.

The good news is that a patch of Brazilian grass shimmered in the sun, and will be the stage on which the game retakes the ball from those who try to steal it.

There, you feel the hope, the thrill. But Brazilians will decide for themselves whether they will buy into it. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

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