Brazil's World Cup - a risky business?

Dr Donna Wong

Posted: June 8, 2014

Tagged: events / legacy / risk / security

When Luis Inacio Lula da Silva came into power in 1989, he attracted much attention from the world for the socio-economic progress in the country during his three-term reign as the President of Brazil. It was during his mandate which saw huge progress in economic growth and social programmes, with over millions of its citizens leaving poverty. The 1990s ushered in the first decade of democratic political stability and inflationary control in the country’s history. To further his legacy, Lula sought to use soft power to promote the Brazilian brand in the international arena. The bid to host a FIFA World Cup in 2014 was an important part of this strategy. Witnessing the success of the China Olympic Games, the Lula administration thought that the FIFA World Cup could be a catalyst to fast-track the much needed infrastructural development for the country and develop its tourism industry. It was seen as an opportunity to secure an improved image of the country internationally by leaving the traditional developing nation that the Brazilian brand represented in the past. Needless to say, as with most sports mega-events, legacies as such are not always guaranteed. Hosting an event of such magnitude and international interest carries exceptional risks ranging from terrorist threats, football violence, protests, human rights advocacy, infrastructure readiness to event security, to name a few. For Brazil to obtain the greatest return on the FIFA World Cup’s investments, how these risks are mitigated will have implications on securing the identified legacies.

Infrastructure is the most significant legacy the Brazilian authorities have envisioned for the FIFA World Cup. The refurbishment and building of new stadiums, along with improvements in public transportation and urban renewal were the focuses of the preparations for the FIFA World Cup, which the authorities envisioned would lead to tangible gains in quality of life for Brazilian citizens. However, these are the very projects that presented most risks in their preparations for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Out of the 12 stadiums selected as FIFA World Cup stadiums, five are new venues constructed specifically for the FIFA World Cup, with one demolished and rebuilt in the capital Brasilia, and the remaining six extensively renovated. Six of these stadiums were delivered within the FIFA required dates for 2013 Confederations Cup; while the other six missed FIFA’s original 31 December 2013 deadline for completed works.  Accidents and poor safety conditions are the key reasons for the delay. For instance, the Itaquerao Stadium inSão Paulo suffered the loss of two construction workers when a crane collapsed while finishing the instalment of the roof last November. Now, with less than 3 weeks to the event, there are still reported issues with the incompletion of the Itaquerao Stadium roof. Although tests matches have taken place at all 12 stadiums, with corners being cut in a bid to complete their constructions, it inevitably calls into question the quality of work and therefore the overall safety of stadiums. It most certainly puts the thousands of fans attending the matches come this June and July at risk.

Infrastructural readiness aside, whether a repeat of last summer’s protests during the 2013 Confederations Cup will take place is at the forefront of global attention. Brazilians have protested throughout the country’s contemporary history. However, the recent wave of unrest in the country that took place in 2013 was distinct. The Confederations Cup, held from 15 to 30 June 2013, served as a warm-up competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup to test out security, stadiums and transport. Beginning in early June 2013, a group of São Paulo citizens protested against an increase in bus fares. Brazilian bus fares typically increase in January when most people are away on vacation. Previous fare hikes came and gone with little or no accompanying civil disobedience. However, in early 2013, the perennial January increase was suspended until May to ease government concerns over inflation. The unintended consequence of the change was a tide of protest when bus fare increased at an unusual time in May. Commuters travelling to work, and not on vacation, were immediately affected by this otherwise routine policy. These protests later spread to the rest of Brazil, as the demonstration resonated with struggling middle-class commuters concerned with escalating bus fares right across the country. The protests increased as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians across the country organised crowds on social media, among other platforms, to exercise their right to denounce the government for a range of perceived injustices. The protests reached their peak on 20 June 2013 where a semi-final match was taking place.

The Brazilian government reacted to the protests with extreme violence as the wave of protests swept across several Brazilian cities in June 2013. Police armed with clubs, rubber pellets, tear gas and riot shields were called in to suppress demonstrators and protesters. The use of social media, combined with citizen journalism, accelerated the process at which scenes of police violence and human rights violations were presented across international media. These were the very images that the Brazilian government most wanted to avoid. It was more reminiscent of Brazil’s military dictatorships than the modern democracy the current government wished to promote on the global stage through the Confederations Cup and the FIFA World Cup. The Confederations Cup provided disgruntled Brazilians an unprecedented opportunity to leverage on for international attention to their plights. They quickly realised this can be repeated in the lead up to and during the FIFA World Cup by causing international embarrassment to the organisers and hold the Brazilian authorities to ransom. There are already signs of unrests and protests taking place in the flowing up period to the FIFA World Cup (e.g. series of protests by homeless demonstrators in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro; police strike over pay; demonstrations over corruptions).

2014 is arguably one of the most important years in Brazilian history as all hopes – economic gains, social progress, and international reputation – converge in the FIFA World Cup. Yet there is a sense of great uncertainty about 2014 in Brazil. No one knows what will happen. The precise mood over the next few weeks is not easy to predict. Any grievance, however small, will carry the potential to strike a spark and ignite a city or the country as a whole. With Brazil’s great concern with the legacy and its image the FIFA World Cup will leave in the international arena,the potential for protests and security forces overreacting to protesters remains a huge possibility. The FIFA World Cup, which was supposed to build a modern image of Brazil, might end up reinforcing the exact images of harsh repression it was trying to shake. This will be the biggest risk thus far.

About Dr Donna Wong

Dr Donna Wong is working as a Research Fellow in the Centre for the International Business of Sport at the Coventry Business School. Her research interests relate to various aspects of sport, including media and youth participation. She has recently extended her interests to look at the impacts, legacies and risk assessment of sport mega-events.