ZURICH (Reuters) - FIFA has struggled to hide its exasperation over Brazil’s stuttering preparations for this year’s World Cup, yet soccer’s governing body can hardly say it has not been warned.
The danger signs were all there back in 2007 when Rio de Janeiro struggled to host the Pan American Games, a relatively minor event in global sporting terms.
Cost over-runs, a promised metro expansion that never materialised and constant delays and problems in the building of venues, many of which were completed at the last possible moment, should have set the alarm bells ringing in Zurich.
Yet, just three months later, Brazil, the only candidates under FIFA’s short-lived system of rotating the tournament around the continents, were awarded the 2014 World Cup with barely a dissenting voice.
Questions about Brazil’s dilapidated infrastructure, social problems, crime and violence were brushed aside with talk of Brazil’s proud record on the field.
In the six-and-a-half years since then, the World Cup has gone largely the same way at as the Pan-American games.
FIFA has watched almost helplessly from the sidelines as Brazilian organisers have missed deadlines, shattered their original budget and shelved infrastructure projects which would have provided the tournament with a legacy.
In one recent example, FIFA warned last May that all 12 World Cup stadiums must be ready by the end of last year and delays would not be tolerated. Five stadiums missed that deadline, yet FIFA did nothing.
Time has been particularly cruel to the inspection report on which FIFA based the decision to award Brazil the tournament.
“The Brazilian model for the World Cup is to give priority to private finance in the construction and remodelling of the stadiums through long term concessions and eventually public private partnerships (PPPs),” said FIFA’s inspection team.
“The objective is to build modern stadiums that will meet FIFA’s requirements while public funds will be allocated towards basic infrastructure, particularly security, airports, roads and hospitals.”
Instead, public funds have been used to build the stadiums, while much of the promised infrastructure has failed to materialise.
The report said that “a significant development is the construction of the Rio-Sao Paulo high speed train that will connect both cities and reduce the journey time to less than two hours.” That project has not even started.
Air travel has been a particularly big headache, yet FIFA’s report said there was nothing to worry about.
“The inspection team concluded that Brazil has the necessary air transport infrastructure to handle the anticipated number of international visitors as well as the number of spectators and working groups that may wish to travel from venue to venue to attend matches,” it said.
When South Africa staged the World Cup four years ago, FIFA adopted a hands-on process, cajoling the hosts whenever they dragged their feet.
Brazil, however, have been allowed to run their own show in the way that few can have imagined, especially considering that FIFA survives largely on the income from its four-yearly flagship event and usually demands that it is run with Swiss precision.
FIFA had wanted only eight to 10 venues to reduce logistical problems, yet agreed to allow Brazil to use 12.
Local organisers then decided that teams would travel around the vast nation rather than playing their group games in a single venue, adding to the logistical nightmare.
FIFA has periodically threatened and chastised the hosts, then backed down in the face of predictably indignant reactions from Brazil, which prides itself as home of Pele’s beautiful game and “the country of football.”
Sensitive to allegations that it is trampling on Brazilian sovereignty, soccer’s governing body has been treading gingerly.
“FIFA does not have as much control as it would like over Brazil 2014,” said Christopher Gaffney, researcher and visiting professor at the Universidad Federal Fluminense in Niteroi, near Rio de Janeiro.
”They always have to walk a fine line between imposing their demands and time schedule and letting the host do it their way.
“There may have been a lack of understanding about the Brazilian ”jeitinho“ (the local way of doing things based on improvisation),” he added.
”The general opinion (in Brazil) is that FIFA has got everything it wanted in terms of fiscal and political benefits and it should leave it up to the Brazilians to take care of delivery.
“FIFA might not have been explicit enough about what needed to get done and when, but they have also not been very aggressive in trying to manipulate the composition of the local organising committee.”
FIFA’s frustration with Brazil’s three-tier system of municipal, state and federal government was unwittingly exposed by secretary general Jerome Valcke last April.
“Less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup,” he said. “When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Vladmir Putin can do in 2018........that is easier for us organisers.”
Gaffney said that FIFA had seemed disorientated.
”The mind-boggling complexity of the Brazilian governmental structure put together for the event has made it such that even FIFA has no idea where to turn for answers.
”The selection of 12 host cities was a Brazilian choice and FIFA is caught there, again, between its “no political interference” stance and the need to carry off a regionalised World Cup in Brazil.
“They say that they went through 50 odd schedules, but they ended up with the one that has every game in every group being held in a different city.”
Faced with such a scenario, all FIFA can do is cross its fingers and talk of confidence and mutual trust.
“There is no problem,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who frequently declares himself an optimist, said on Thursday after yet another clear-the-air meeting, this time with President Dilma Rousseff.
“At the end of the day, everything will be in order, everywhere in Brazil.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Downie in Sao Paulo. Editing by Patrick Johnston