“The event will have total transparency,” said former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “We are going to put on an unforgettable World Cup. That’s the commitment. You can hold us to it.”
“There won’t be one cent of public money used to build stadiums,” added his Sports Minister Orlando Silva.
With soccer’s biggest event less than 600 days away, those promises ring increasingly hollow. Nine of the 12 arenas are being built with public money and the three government websites set up to monitor costs and progress and provide information that is incomplete, contradictory, or out of date.
Brazilians are growing concerned that mismanagement of the World Cup, and the Olympics Games that follow, will squander the country's chance to build needed infrastructure and improve government in a nation that pays first world tax rates but gets third world services in return.
“The 12 host cities [of the World Cup] are not currently accountable,” Paulo Itacarambi, Vice President of Brazilian transparency group Instituto Ethos, said last week at the 15th International Anti-Corruption Conference. “This was supposed to be a moment of unity. This was an opportunity for mobilization.”
A lot has gone right in Brazil in recent years. The economy of the fifth largest nation has expanded quickly in recent years, thanks largely to a growing domestic market and abundant natural resources. More than 30 million people have left poverty and joined the consuming middle classes. The hosting of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in Rio de Jeneiro in 2016 were meant to showcase Brazil's arrival as a major player on the global stage.
What will be gained?
However, some Brazilians are starting to question if the government can live up to that lofty image and, if not, what exactly they will gain from the events other than a few weeks of fun.
That is particularly the case with the World Cup, which will take place in a dozen Brazilian cities over four weeks. Five years after Brazil was chosen to host the event, officials have yet to declare how much it will all cost.
The preliminary price tag was set at 27.1 billion reais (around $13.5 billion at today’s exchange rate), but does not include spending in sectors such as policing, telecommunications, and accommodation.
Officials claim there will be a dozen new stadiums and that they are all on schedule. Critics say almost all are over budget and are being built either with public money or government loans at preferential rates. At least four of them will be white elephants after the tournament, according to the government’s own Audits Court.
Infrastructure might not meet demand
Even more worrying is the promised improvements in transport infrastructure.
Authorities promised the World Cup would bring a widespread extension and modernization of metro lines, bus lanes, highways, and most crucially, airports.
Some 10,000 new cars are driven off auto dealer lots every day in Brazil. And the number of air travelers has jumped around 10 percent each year since the middle of the last decade, according to Brazil’s civil aviation authority Anac.
Yet existing infrastructure has not been expanded to cope with the rise in demand and authorities are now acknowledging it might not.
Monorails or light rail lines in at least four cities are so far behind they are unlikely to be ready for the tournament, if at all.
“Without doubt the biggest problems are with urban transportation,” says Christopher Gaffney, an American professor of urbanism who lives in Rio and is studying World Cup and Olympics preparations.
Government officials point out they have established new systems of control and that old ones are working. For example, legislators in the southern state of Parana last week opened a congressional inquiry into alleged overbilling at the local stadium project. Other investigations are expected to follow.
Transparency, accountability debated
Officials also point to a increased transparency thanks to government websites that that monitor the progress of construction and where the money is being spent. The Brazilian Court of Audit also issues periodic reports.
“There are multiple systems of control,” said Luis Fernandes, the executive secretary at the Sports Ministry. “It is all passed on to the public.”
Critics, though, say, the information they provide is suspect and complain a greater problem is accountability.
It is common for the World Cup organizing committee to refer questions to the football confederation who refer them to the Sports Ministry who refer them to the construction companies who refer them to the organizing committee.
“While some of the initiatives are positive in the sense that they have at least something real in terms of allowing people to understand how this money is being spent, when it comes to who the checks are being given to and why, there is almost nothing,” said Gaffney.