Fear of chaos and crime dogs Brazil's 2014 carnival

Half-built stadiums, transport problems and rising street violence are threatening World Cup, writes Sam Green in Rio de Janeiro
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The Independent Football

It is unlikely that guests at the five-star Hotel Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro were thinking about the World Cup when masked gunmen burst into their rooms in the middle of the night and robbed them last week.

Click HERE to upload graphic: 'Work In Progress: Brazil's World Cup Venues' (404.16kB)

But for the rest of the world, the news again focused attention on whether Brazil is ready to host Fifa's flagship event in 2014, two years before the Olympic Games come to Rio.

The Fifa limousine will roll into Rio today for the qualifying draw, the first big event in the build-up to what could be the most colourful, exciting World Cup in history in surely the most famous football country in the world. Before England discover who they must overcome to join the party, there will be a pop concert in the beautiful Marina da Gloria, an upmarket harbour next to the city centre offering views of the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain across Guanabara Bay. Zico, Ronaldo and Neymar will represent three generations of Brazilian football talent. Attention will be drawn to a city and country blessed with astounding natural beauty, an irresistible football culture and a people who are disarmingly friendly and generous.

But away from the razzmatazz, skulking in the shadows, remain the three issues that threaten to ruin the fiesta: safety, stadiums and infrastructure. Brazil feels like a country poised for greatness, while flirting with ignominy.

The attack on the Hotel Santa Teresa – in an affluently Bohemian neighbourhood that is often targeted by criminals – which was made famous in Rio after the late Amy Winehouse stayed there in January, followed hot on the heels of a shoot-out during an attempted car theft at a petrol station. And that came a week after a raid on a bus ended in a gunfight that left five injured. The attack was just north of the city centre and, although football fans are unlikely to stay in that part of town (most will be in the Zona Sul Beach), many will travel through on their way to the central bus station.

But such problems are not confined to Rio. São Paulo is notorious for car-jacking, the North East, which has four World Cup venues, has long-standing crime issues, while the normally tranquil Cuiabá, another host city, is in the grip of a crime wave which has resulted in 32 homicides this month, some linked to robberies, one involving a city centre, rush-hour shootout.

Ricardo Balestreri, the national secretary of public security until January, is adamant that the broader picture shows that safety is improving, but points to Brazil's stark inequalities. "These recent events are isolated incidents that can occur in any city that has great differences in income and social and educational benefits," he says. "Modern Brazil has inherited strong social injustice from the past."

Indeed Rio is a city of jaw-dropping juxtapositions. About 1.2 million of the city's population (almost 20 per cent) live in favelas, perched high on the morros (hills). Compelling and sometimes strangely beautiful, these shanty towns stare down accusingly at those living comfortable, often luxurious lives below.

Decades of state neglect allowed criminal gangs to assume control of some of the morros, a process now being painfully and sometimes violently reversed with the installation of Police Pacification Units (UPPs), a programme described by Balestreri as "the best news in the history of public security in Rio". Last month the huge Mangueira favela was "pacified", creating a ring of security around the Maracanã stadium.

Balestreri, who now trains security professionals for the World Cup and Olympics, said improving safety for the sporting mega-events must not come at the cost of human rights. "It must strengthen security for normal Brazilians and be a deepening of the new model of 'security with citizenship' that is being constructed in the country."

But while there remains crime motivated by poverty or greed in Brazil, there is not the culture of casual, hedonistic violence that afflicts many British towns at weekends. And Cariocas quickly grow tired of crime-infested portrayals of their city, priding themselves on an ability to be street smart that almost always keeps them safe. Yes, there are dangers, as in any other city, but they know how to avoid them.

If street crime can be policed or sidestepped, stadium issues are harder to brush aside. In March, Fifa president Sepp Blatter criticised Brazil's "day after tomorrow" attitude and this week a special report by the Brazilian news magazine Veja declared that work on only four of the stadiums (Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Salvador and Cuiabá) is on schedule, while five (including the Maracanã) are late and three very late. The biggest concern is São Paulo, where uncertainty over funding (after pledges that no public money would be spent, the majority of the 817m Brazilian Reals – £320m – will now come from government) and political infighting meant construction of the venue for the opening match has only just begun. With two years to the Confederations Cup – the dry run for the World Cup – the site of the stadium in Brazil's biggest city and economic capital is a muddy trench.

With £9bn of public money going into the World Cup there are concerns that Brazil's perennial problems with corruption will swallow much of it up. In April the Federal Audit Court reported irregularities in the contracts for six of the stadiums. In some cases arenas have been overpriced, tying local governments in poor states to huge repayment plans with private companies. The court predicted that construction and maintenance costs for stadiums in Brasilia, Cuiabá, Manaus and Natal would be higher than the income that could be generated.

While the IOC has been gushing in its praise of Rio's Olympic preparations, Fifa waded into the World Cup Organising Committee again last month, with Jérôme Valcke saying the Maracanã would not be ready until "the last minute" and accused Brazil of being more focused on winning the tournament than putting on a good show. The controversial general secretary tapped into the national obsession with exorcising the ghosts of 1950, the only time Brazil has hosted the event, when their final defeat by Uruguay was compared by respected Brazilian writers to tragedies. It was "our Hiroshima" wrote Nelson Rodrigues while Roberto Muylaert compared the footage of the defeat to that of the assassination of JFK.

From the multicultural metropolises of São Paulo and Rio, to Manuas deep in the Amazon, from the strong African influences of the North East to the Gaucho cowboy culture in the south, travelling in Brazil should be one of the pleasures of the tournament. But the lack of a decent rail system (a high-speed link between São Paulo and Rio has been on the table for 30 years but will struggle to be ready even for the Olympics) and over-crowded airports and roads are arguably the biggest World Cup concern. When an official report earlier this year said 10 of the 14 airports needed for the tournament would not be ready, the government responded by moving towards privatising the sector, a process that has begun with uncertainty.

The likelihood is that police will get a grip on crime, as they usually do for Carnival each year, the stadiums will be finished just about in time and everyone will make do in crowded airports and buses.

Mike Lee, the British communications guru who helped London 2012 and Rio 2016 win Olympic hosting rights and Qatar secure the 2022 World Cup, has recently opened an office in Rio. "There are always issues and criticism in the build-up to mega-events which organising committees have to face up to," he says. "When very senior people [in Fifa] raise concerns, that is done to create an impact.

"There was a large amount of concern about safety in the build-up to the World Cup in South Africa and yet we had an event that was virtually crime-free. One of the first things that strikes you when you visit Brazil is the warmth of the people and the incredible passion they have for football and celebration. This augurs well for the World Cup and the Olympics, and it would be a shame if the negative stuff stopped people from coming and experiencing it."

Indeed, Brazilians have a cheery expression, "tudo vai dar certo", meaning "everything's going to work out".

Fifa in particular will hope such optimism is borne out in the next few years.

World Cup Worriers

I would like to tell my Brazilian colleagues about the 2014 World Cup: it's tomorrow, the Brazilians think it's just the day after tomorrow.

Sepp Blatter, Fifa president

The idea that we were going to make up for 30 years without investment in infrastructure in just four years was probably never realistic.

Orlando Silver, Brazilian Sports Minister

All the things they have promised, all the commitments from different people, they have to deliver these commitments. We do not want a hasty World Cup.

Jérôme Valcke, Fifa general secretary