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Brazil’s World Cup, Olympics upgrades spark criticism

A growing number of voices are raising concerns that the world’s two largest sporting events could actually exacerbate social divisions in a country already among the most unequal on the planet.

As Brazil gears up for the 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympics, government ministers have become fond of proclaiming how the tournaments will boost economic development.

Yet a growing number of voices are raising concerns that the world’s two largest sporting events could actually exacerbate social divisions in a country already among the most unequal on the planet.

Complaints include extravagant spending on the stadiums, the compulsory eviction of thousands of poor residents and costly ticketing that will exclude large numbers of local fans from the World Cup in what is widely viewed as the world’s most soccer-mad nation.

“Who is the public that is being benefited?” asked Christopher Gaffney, an American visiting professor at Fluminense Federal University’s Postgraduate Architecture and Urban Planning Program, who is studying Brazil’s preparation for both events.

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Sports minister Aldo Rebelo said the overall benefits for Brazil justify any drawbacks.

“This is our huge and necessary opportunity to upgrade our engineering skills on construction and our telecommunications technology, as well as to put Brazil back on the map,” he has said.

The authorities in Brazil also cite the estimated 3.4 million tourists expected to visit Brazil during the six-week tournament, when it kicks off in June 2014, as a major boon.

Yet Gaffney and other critics say that Brazil should be spending its money on social projects, not multimillion-dollar facilities.

One of Gaffney’s main criticisms: Brazil’s decision to use some of the priciest cutting-edge technology available for the 12 stadiums that will host the World Cup. Currently the bill for building or renovating those facilities has been put at $4 billion, up from the original estimate of $3 billion.

Many of those venues will have solar-powered roofs and retractable seats. In addition to that technology having to be imported to Brazil and fitted with foreign labor, it will require annual maintenance costing around 10 percent of the purchase price.

“In a decade, you will have paid for each stadium twice over,” Gaffney told GlobalPost. Instead, he argues, Brazil should have chosen to host the event in simpler structures in keeping with Brazil’s social reality, where the average monthly income is $680 — and where millions make do on a fraction of that amount.

In Sao Paulo, roughly $280 million of public money has been spent upgrading the stadium of soccer team Corinthians, one of the venues for the World Cup.

“That money could have been invested in homes, schools or universities,” Tita Reis, a member of Sao Paulo’s People’s Committee for the World Cup, a neighborhood protest group, told Brazilian newspaper O Globo.

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Meanwhile, there have been serious concerns about the lack of progress in readying the facilities for the tournament, a fact some critics believe was inevitable in a country wracked by corruption and opaque bureaucracy.

There have even been suggestions that one city, Natal, is so behind schedule that it may have to be dropped as a venue with less than 18 months to go to the World Cup.

FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke has denied that Natal may be dropped from the list but did say: “We have to keep monitoring it more closely and the city needs to speed up as they are very late.”

But a series of forced removals of residents from poor neighborhoods across Brazil, to make way for stadium expansions, new roads and public transport, has also sparked heated debate.

So far, just in Rio — host to the Olympics as well as the location of the legendary Maracana stadium, which will stage the World Cup final — an estimated 15,000 have already been moved from their homes.

Alexandre Mendes, a former head of housing rights at the Rio state public defender’s office, told the Associated Press: “Many of these removals did not respect principles and rights considered basic in local and international law.”

Abuses alleged by Mendes include evicting entire families late at night as bulldozers waited, forcing residents to move to alternative housing far from their communities and accept a pittance in compensation.

Workers building the venues for the sporting events have also grown disgruntled and have organized strikes over salary woes.

With soccer akin to a national religion in Brazil, one criticism of the World Cup that has particularly roiled the public is the high price of tickets.

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Of the 3 million tickets available, just 1 million will be sold, often for well over $100 each, on the local market. The remainder will be divided up between FIFA and national soccer associations around the world.

FIFA has authorized 300,000 to be sold in Brazil for $25 each and another 100,000 have been reserved for underprivileged groups such as indigenous peoples and those in extreme poverty programs.

Brazilian soccer legend Romario, a World Cup winner in 1994 and now a Socialist congressman and persistent critic of what he regards as FIFA’s elitism, says that’s not enough.

“The Brazilian pensioner will not have the financial means to afford this outlay and will therefore be excluded from the World Cup,” he recently noted in one typical Tweet on the subject.