Everything you need to know about Brazil's massively flawed World Cup preparations

The planet's biggest sporting event kicks off in days, amid grave doubts about Brazil's ability to play host

(Image credit: (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres))

Is Brazil ready for the Cup?

Yes, but just barely. All 12 stadiums Brazil built or rebuilt for the Cup have been approved for game play, but half missed completion deadlines, and several are still short on seats and other amenities. In Natal, where the U.S. plays Ghana in its June 16 tournament opener, workers have hung colorful canvas tarps depicting beach scenes over unfinished access ramps. Getting to the games could be a huge challenge, as many major transportation projects, including a promised high-speed rail line between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, have been delayed or abandoned. Labor strife, corruption, and construction accidents — eight workers died while building World Cup stadiums — have driven the cost of hosting the event from an original estimate of less than $1 billion to more than $11.5 billion. From start to finish, the frantic effort to prepare for the Cup has laid bare deep economic and social ills that have plagued Brazil for decades. "The fiascoes are multiplying," says Gil Castello Branco of the Brazilian economic watchdog group Contas Abertas. "Immense resources have been wasted on extravagant projects when our public schools are still a mess and raw sewage is still in our streets."

Why was Brazil awarded the tournament?

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When the bid was granted, in 2007, Brazil was in the midst of an economic boom. Delegates from FIFA, soccer's international governing body, reported being greeted with "spontaneous manifestations of joy and hope" while visiting prospective sites in Brazil, and polls showed that 78 percent of Brazilians supported hosting the tournament. International investors were lining up to tap the emerging market that boasted 30 million consumers who were climbing from poverty into the middle class. Brazil was also a sentimental choice: Soccer, or o jogo bonito — the beautiful game — is the very lifeblood of Brazilian culture, and the country has won five Cups, more than any other. Hosting the World Cup was meant to be a coming-out party for the world's seventh-largest economy, a celebration of Brazil's prosperity and growing cultural import. "Football is more than a sport for us," then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said at the time. "It's a national passion."

So what went wrong?

Nearly everything. Poor planning, corruption, and bureaucratic meddling turned the construction projects into a disaster, with massive overspending and blown deadlines. Forced relocations of an estimated 250,000 residents and controversial "pacification" efforts in Brazil's thousands of slums, or favelas, angered the population. Things came to a head last year, during the FIFA Confederations Cup, an eight-nation tournament that serves as a World Cup dress rehearsal. Some 1 million demonstrators took to the streets in several cities, decrying the sorry state of education, sanitation, and transportation in Brazil, and demanding "FIFA standard" hospitals, roads, and schools. Some hard-core activists attacked government buildings and banks. As a member of one such group, Los Vânda, told the Financial Times, "the World Cup attends to the economic interests of FIFA and not the interests of society."

How did the authorities respond?

Harshly. Police fired tear gas at protesters and a TV cameraman was killed in a clash between protesters and police at Rio's main train station in February. In an effort to control crowds at the Cup, authorities are deploying nearly 160,000 paramilitary troops during the month-long tournament. They've also purchased some 270,000 stun grenades and tear gas canisters. Police pacification units have taken control of dozens of favelas that have long been dominated by violent drug gangs. But order has come at a price: 1,890 people were killed by police in 2012, according to official records, and less than 25 percent of citizens say the cops are trustworthy. Street crime has surged, prompting authorities to distribute pamphlets urging the 600,000 foreign World Cup visitors not to resist or cry for help during a mugging, to minimize the chance that they'll be murdered, too. Despite the unrest, authorities insist that the games will be safe. "I can assure you that Brazil has conducted a very well-planned operation to secure the 12 cities," says army Gen. Roberto Escoto.

Will the games be disrupted?

Once the tournament begins, says the Brazilian Sports Ministry, "a festive mood will take over, and there will be no room for violent protests." Despite all the trouble, nearly all of the 3.3 million game tickets have been sold. Many Brazilians predict that the ultimate success or failure of this World Cup lies at the feet of the Selação, Brazil's national team. If it wins its matches, Brazilians will be ecstatic and pour into the streets in celebration. If it falls short, the unfairness and inefficiency that have marred the run-up to the Cup will come to define it. "The World Cup will put Brazil in the middle of the planet's attention," says political writer Cynara Menezes, "for good and for bad."

The coming Olympic challenge

Rio de Janeiro will also play host to the 2016 Summer Olympics, and once again, it is struggling to prepare for a world-class event. The International Olympic Committee has already declared that Brazil's lack of preparation has become a "critical situation." Construction on Rio's main stadium has stalled due to a prolonged strike, and work on the secondary site in Deodoro has yet to begin. Guanabara Bay, where most of the sailing and windsurfing events will take place, is littered with raw sewage, garbage, and corpses — human and animal alike — prompting one German sailor to label it "an open sewer." Because soccer is a national obsession, many Brazilians still support the country's hosting of the World Cup, but the Olympics are a different matter: When the eviction notices for people in slums come bearing an Olympic logo, the backlash is even more intense. "Don't ever in your life do a World Cup and an Olympic Games at the same time," says Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes. "I am not cut out to be a masochist."

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