For the past month, I have been working in Brazil providing production services for international broadcasters covering the World Cup. Twelve Brazilian different cities hosted the tournament, which began on June 12 in São Paulo, and 32 nations from all over the globe participated—bringing hordes of players, fans and reporters to remote parts of Brazil that had never heard their languages or seen their flags before.
I traveled to six of these host cities by air and road, and witnessed just how vast and versatile this country of 200 million people really is—and I didn't even see the half of it.
My four-week journey began in the northeastern city of Natal, capital of Rio Grande do Norte, where I flew into the new São Gonçalo do Amarante–Governador Aluízio Alves International Airport. The privately-owned terminal had been inaugurated a week before our arrival. Its tall ceilings and glass façade were beautiful and modern, with curvy windows that reflected the light from the afternoon sunset. Our 12 pieces of luggage arrived promptly and the employees were helpful and courteous.
However, the airport is far from Natal’s city center, and street signs and pavement were absent at several points along the 20 mile (32 km) route. My taxi driver complained that the airport only had one entry, and cursed the new structure and the World Cup for making the local airport twice as distant as the old one.
On July 15, the leaders of the five BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—will convene in Fortaleza, Brazil. This will mark the sixth official meeting between the member nations since the creation of the group in 2009.
Only two days after the final of the World Cup, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has the opportunity to extend the global spotlight on her country by hosting the BRICS leaders.
For Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, this will mark his first visit to Brazil and only his second international tour since entering office in May—so Indians will be listening closely to hear his public stance on various issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be making his first trip to Brazil, though he is in no way a stranger to Latin America, an important source of raw materials for China and target for foreign direct investment. Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely be thankful for the change in landscape after receiving such negative attention from the West for Russia’s policies toward the Ukraine. And President Jacob Zuma of South Africa is hopeful that the sixth Summit will produce results that were envisioned in the fifth meeting he hosted last year in Durban.
In 1945, the Brazilian football clubs Remo and Paysandu took the pitch here in Belém, gateway to the Amazon in the northeastern state of Pará. One of many face-offs of their famous century-old rivalry, the match became significant for more than just the 7-0 drubbing that Paysandu inflicted. It would leave a deep scar on Remo’s psyche.
The score still haunts Remo supporters such as Fabrico Bessa, even though his team has since bested Paysandu many times, including this year in the annual Clássico Rei da Amazônia (King of the Amazon Classic).
“We won the local championship this year, but anytime I try to talk about it to someone from Paysandu they just look at me and say ‘7-0’,” said Bessa, a 34-year-old optometrist with a practice here. “We will always have to swallow that, because we don’t know how to explain how we lost 7-0.”
In a small way, Bessa told me, that’s how this entire nation feels after the World Cup host lost 7-1 to Germany in the semifinal of the planet’s most-watched sporting event. Local newspapers reflected the agony on their front pages: “Massacre,” “Humiliation,” “An embarrassment for eternity.” Brazil had been the runaway favorite to win it all, with pre-tournament analytical models giving the seleção at least a 50 percent chance of claiming the trophy.
“It’s too sad to be real,” Bessa said.
Brazil is now in mourning. But in that is something to be noted: Brazil is also unified.
Brazil was routed 7-1 by Germany during yesterday’s World Cup semifinal match in Belo Horizonte, marking the South American nation’s biggest defeat in the history of the tournament. Neymar Jr., Brazil’s star player, was out of the lineup with a fractured vertebrae from Friday’s physical clash with Colombia. But more than their striker, the seleção sorely missed team captain and defensive leader Thiago Silva, who received a second yellow card on Friday and was prohibited from playing against Germany.
In Silva’s absence, Brazil’s back line looked scattered, allowing four German players to score five goals in the first 30 minutes alone—sending a shock to the country that has won more World Cup trophies (5) than any other team. Following the game, President Dilma Rousseff said on Twitter, “I am immensely sorry for all of us,” and Brazilian coach Luiz Scolari said in a post-game interview that “It was the worst day of my life.”
Dilma will be feeling the pressure as Brazil’s attention turns from the World Cup to the presidential elections in October. Rousseff’s opposition, centrist candidate Aécio Neves, is currently polling at 20 percent, well below the president’s 38 percent voter support. But that margin could become slimmer if Brazilians’ frustration with the $11 billion price tag for hosting the tournament boils over into more protests like those that gripped several Brazilian cities during last summer’s Confederations Cup and immediately preceding this summer’s World Cup.
Police dismantled a World Cup ticket scalping operation with the arrest of 11 individuals in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in a raid Tuesday night. After a three-month investigation, twenty search warrants were granted and police raided a mansion in Santa Mônica, Barra da Tijuca, seizing close to $10,000 reais and 100 World Cup tickets that were originally meant for NGOs, sponsors and national delegations, as well as computers, cell phones and documents used in the operation.
Among those arrested was the suspected leader of the operation, Mohamadou Lamine Fofana, an Algerian national, naturalized French citizen who former played second division soccer in Canada. Fofana allegedly sold the tickets to tourist agencies at elevated prices through an organization called Atlanta Sportif with branches in Atlanta and Dubai. While legitimate tickets to the final match at Maracanã stadium were selling for $440 to $900, Fofana’s agency was selling them for up to $35,000. According to the police investigator, Fábio Barucke, those arrested in the raid confessed to participating in illegal ticket sales for the past four World Cups and have made close to $200 million reais per tournament, and $1 million reais per game.
The organization's relationship with FIFA is also under investigation as Fofana had a special sticker giving him access to FIFA-restricted areas during the tournament, and calls were also traced from Fofana to FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich. “We have reason to believe that a member of FIFA was involved with the group,” said Inspector Barucke.
The individuals detained have been charged with money laundering, illegal money changing and organized crime, which carry a maximum of 18 years in prison if convicted.
With the second round of the World Cup soccer tournament concluded the main storylines have been the success of teams from the Americas, the early exit of previous stalwarts England, Italy and Spain, the relatively high number of goals, and—at least in the United States—the sudden realization that soccer actually has a strong and passionate following. The dog that hasn’t barked? The pre-tournament meme about Brazil’s unpreparedness to host such a large event and the crime and street protests which were to have shut down various venues. Clearly, that’s not proven out. With two weeks to go, some commentators are already wondering aloud whether this will be the most successful World Cup of all time.
That may be a bit dramatic, but the signs are encouraging. Problems exist, of course, as they do in every major global event, and big questions about cost and legacy of the tournament will be asked by Brazilians themselves after the tournament concludes. Most observers, however, now seem to be content to enjoy Brazil’s famous hospitality and the joy of the beautiful game at the highest international level.
And what a competition it’s been. Goalies have stolen the show. The U.S.’ Tim Howard, Mexico’s Memo Ochoa, Brazil’s Júlio César, Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, and others have become international celebrities as a result of their acrobatic, gravity-defying saves. Nonetheless, more goals have already been scored to this point in the tournament this year than were scored in the full 2010 tournament, and that has made the games suspenseful and fun to watch.
As Team U.S.A. took the pitch today in Recife for what might be its final World Cup match, some other Brazilian cities were already turning off the lights on their newly built stadiums now that the tournament is halfway over.
Here in Manaus last night, the final crowds exited the still-shiny $300 million Arena da Amazônia after the Honduras-Switzerland match, bringing a close to the biggest event that ever has—and likely ever will—come to the Amazon rainforest. With no more matches scheduled here or in Cuiabá, Natal, and Curitiba, public scrutiny is now turning to what will become of these mega-investments.
“It’s not economical, it’s not good for the country,” said Kelson Eugenio, sitting inside the stadium yesterday with his eight-year-old son and suggesting the money could have been better spent on education. “At the same time, soccer is soccer. We’re taking advantage of the World Cup being here.”
Brazil’s government is still trying hard to sell the event to a skeptical public—and time is running out, with the final match scheduled for July 13. Some long-term benefits to the event’s $11.3 billion price tag are already visible, such as new infrastructure, a jump in tourism, and a boost to businesses. Others are less apparent, like the government’s claim that $6 billion in new investment has been promised by visiting businesspeople, or the specialized training for Brazilian security and police.
This week's likely top stories: Dilma Rousseff confirms she will run for re-election; workers go on strike in Puerto Rico; Argentina says it will negotiate with hedge funds; Chilean bus drivers fear soccer violence; Claudia Paz y Paz will receive an award.
Rousseff’s candidacy is official: Brazil’s ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party—PT) confirmed on Saturday that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will be the party’s candidate for the country’s October presidential elections. Despite declining popularity, protests surrounding the World Cup and Olympics, and meager economic growth rates, Rousseff still leads the field of presidential candidates in the polls. However, the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (Brazilian Labor Party—PTB) announced this weekend that it will support Rousseff’s competitor, Aécio Neves from the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democracy Party—PSDB), and end its alliance with the PT. Rousseff will campaign alongside current Vice President Michel Temer, who will also run for re-election on the ballot with Rousseff.
Workers strike in Puerto Rico: Medical services employees began a 24-hour strike Sunday in front of the Centro Médico de Río Piedras to protest measures by the government to confront the island’s fiscal crisis. The workers join other sectors across Puerto Rico, including metropolitan transit workers and bank employees, in opposing the Ley 66 de Sostenibilidad, which the Puerto Rican Senate passed on June 16 to declare a fiscal state of emergency. The law intends to stabilize the Puerto Rican economy within three years, but it will also freeze bonuses and benefits for public employees. Last Thursday, an assembly of public workers agreed to hold a general strike sometime this week.
Argentine government denounces court ruling: Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to let a $1.3 billion ruling against Argentina stand, the Argentine government published full-page advertisements in major U.S. newspapers this weekend, arguing that “paying the vulture funds is a path leading to default.” However, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said on Friday that she was willing to negotiate with the hedge funds. Argentine Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich said that Argentina will make a formal proposal on Monday to U.S. Federal Judge Thomas Griesa to pay back "100 percent of bondholders."
Chilean transit workers fear soccer riots: Chilean transit workers said they will suspend bus services in anticipation of riots and violence from soccer fans after Chile takes on the Netherlands in the World Cup today. After Chile’s victory over Spain last Wednesday, bus drivers were attacked and buses were taken over by out-of-control fans. Meanwhile, Chilean security forces have put a special traffic plan in place in the capital to avoid major congestion and keep order. So far, Chile’s transportation minister, Andrés Gómez-Lobo, has reported that bus services have been operating as scheduled.
Claudia Paz y Paz receives human rights prize: The Washington Office on Latin America announced today that it has awarded former Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz a Human Rights Award for her work combatting organized crime and corruption. Paz y Paz presided over the trial of former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt and convicted him of genocide and crimes against humanity before the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Paz y Paz’ tenure was cut short last month, and she was replaced by former Supreme Court judge Thelma Esperanza Aldana Hernández, who took office on May 17 and has close ties to Ríos Montt’s party.
The World Cup offers something of a free kick for soccer diplomacy, which some observers say U.S. President Barack Obama is failing to capitalize on.
While many nations, from Germany to Russia, are sending their leaders to Brazil to make a diplomatic appearance, Obama is staying home. So is First Lady Michelle Obama and their soccer-loving children, all three of whom attended the 2012 London Olympics.
“It’s a diminished opportunity,” says Derek Shearer, a former ambassador to Finland under President Bill Clinton and current director of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs at Occidental University, where he teaches a class on sports diplomacy. “Obama could have made more of it than he seems to be doing.”
To be sure, Obama did send Vice President Joseph Biden to attend yesterday’s match in Natal between the U.S. and Ghana. Today, the vice president is meeting with President Dilma Rousseff in Brasília. Biden also represented the White House at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But given that Brazil is the largest economy in South America and the U.S.’ neighbor, should Obama have made a bigger deal of the 2014 World Cup?
Strikes loom over two of Brazil's largest cities on the eve of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which begins this afternoon. Airline workers in Rio de Janeiro started a partial strike on Wednesday night that continues today, and transit workers in São Paulo—the site of the opening match—had threatened to strike today but called decided not to late last night.
Airline union workers in Rio de Janeiro are demanding a pay raise as well as a bonus for working during the month of the World Cup. Only 20 percent of airline workers are expected be on strike in an effort to avoid a fine they would be required to pay if more than 80 percent of union workers failed to show up for work. Meanwhile, the flights for the 554,000 visitors headed to Rio are not expected to be affected.
In São Paulo, subway workers suspended a 48-hour strike for higher wages on Monday after being pressured by the government, but threatened to strike again on Thursday if the 42 workers who were fired for vandalism and misconduct on Monday were not hired back. And though a vote by 1,500 of the workers late last night called off today’s strike, a smaller march is still planned for those who were laid off. "We get the feeling that maybe we aren't as prepared for a full confrontation with police on the day the World Cup starts," said union president Altino Prazeres.
Meanwhile, in a statement during prime-time television Tuesday night, President Dilma Rousseff assured Brazilians that the country is ready to host the World Cup and defended the investment in the games—which totaled $11 billion—stating that between 2010 and 2013 the government invested 212 times more than that amount—$762 billion—in education and health care.
Brazil is scheduled to face off against Croatia in the Corinthians stadium in São Paulo today, and the first game in Rio de Janeiro will take place between Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina on Sunday.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.