SAO PAULO – Merry Brazilian fans flooded the sidewalks outside the Itaquera Stadium, wearing bright yellow shirts and jerseys, tooting horns and waving flags.
The only thing marring the party was the sound of frantic construction, inside and outside the stadium.
As giddy as Brazilians are about the prospect of Neymar and the rest of the selecao lifting a sixth World Cup, their enthusiasm is tempered by preparations that have been nothing short of an embarrassment and fears the World Cup will give Brazil a black eye.
“A lot of the protests and a lot of the unhappiness that you see in Brazil, part of it is fear we’re not going to look good to the rest of the world,” said Thomas Trebat, who is now director of Columbia University’s Global Center in Rio de Janeiro after a long career as an economist who specialized in Latin America. “It’s obviously not life or death. … But it’s important to Brazil’s view of itself, and that’s important to Brazil’s confidence in its own ability to grow, confidence in its government and confidence in its own economic future.
“A success here for Brazil will be an important part of the country hitting its stride globally.”
Brazil has been on edge for much of the last year, furious at its leaders for the corruption and overruns that have pushed the costs for this World Cup over $11 billion. Spending that amount of money on stadiums and infrastructure surrounding them when the country has so many other needs — health care, education — would be cause enough for debate.
But questions about exactly what the money has gotten them has only fueled the anger. The Itaquera’s roof will not be finished until after the World Cup, and workers Wednesday could be seen — and heard — putting the finishing touches on smaller projects around the stadium.
Outside the subway station that serves the Itaquera, a worker was putting last coats of yellow and green paint on the sidewalk.
And the Itaquera is hardly alone.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke often sounded like a parent scolding a child as he tried to goad Brazilian organizers into speeding up their preparations. Curitiba was nearly eliminated as a host site earlier this year because of chronic delays, and Valcke still was sounding alarms on Natal and Porto Alegre just three weeks ago.
As for the infrastructure improvements the World Cup and Olympics were supposed to bring, many of those projects have gone unfinished or abandoned. A high-speed train linking Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro was supposed to be done in time for the World Cup. It’s now unlikely to be done before the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“The World Cup was going to have amazing stadiums, amazing infrastructure. It was supposed to showcase the best of Brazil,” said Alex Bellos, who wrote Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life during his five years as The Guardian newspaper’s Brazil correspondent.
“Instead, it’s showcased the worst of Brazil.”
The anger and frustration that had been bubbling for years erupted during last summer’s Confederations Cup, when there were widespread protests throughout the country. Brazil has brought in extra security to make sure there won’t be similar disruptions during the World Cup, but Brazilians have found other ways to express their outrage.
A five-day transport strike made Sao Paulo’s already excruciating traffic even worse. Though the strike was suspended Monday, a closed-door scrimmage between the United States and Belgium planned for Thursday was called off because the Belgians didn’t want to risk being caught in traffic on the day of the opener.
The mood has turned so sour that, according to a survey over the weekend, 54% of Brazilians say hosting the World Cup will do the country more harm than good.
“I think the predominant sentiment I sense is that the government has sold these games as a great big success and they’re not, and there’s not a lot of advantages in them for (Brazilians),” Trebat said. “At the same time, the government has let (the people) down in many areas where (they) expected improvements: the transportation in the city, health systems and education.”
“These things have been problems in Brazil for decades, if not a century,” Trebat added. “(The government) over-promised and then under-delivered in public services.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has brushed aside the dissent, saying the country has gotten through the worst of it.
It will be, she promised in a national address that aired Tuesday, the “greatest World Cup in history.”
“The pessimists … have been defeated by the hard work and determination of the Brazilian people, who never give up,” Rousseff said.
And it’s clear the country desperately wants to believe her.
Brazilian flags draped porches, car antennas and storefronts across Sao Paulo. The roof of one sidewalk shop was lined in flags, with the vendor patiently poking at the last stubborn one until it finally unfurled. Green and yellow soccer balls decorated the overhangs at one chain of gas stations.
Even the mannequins at a lingerie store in a Sao Paulo mall were dressed in blue, green and yellow.
“Even if people are excited, they can’t get too excited because the national mood is one of anger against the politicians,” Bellos said. “I think that will change once the games start.”
Because, ready or not, the World Cup is here.