RECIFE, Brazil (Reuters) - A wave of protests across Brazil have alarmed football organisers concerned that the unrest could affect the current Confederations Cup and even jeopardise next year’s World Cup.
At least 200,000 people took to the streets of more than half a dozen Brazilian cities on Monday night in the biggest demonstrations in the country for 20 years.
The protests were originally sparked by a hike in bus fares but they expanded to embrace broader issues. Many of the demonstrators expressed anger at the low quality of public transport, health and education and others complained at the shocking standard of service provided by banks, health insurers, cell phone companies among others.
Ominously for FIFA, football’s governing body, a significant number expressed anger at the cost of hosting the 2014 World Cup and the smaller Confederations Cup that kicked off in six Brazilian cities on Saturday.
FIFA have tried to distance themselves from the unrest, with spokesman Pekka Odrizola saying Brazilian authorities “are responsible for all those security matters outside of the stadium, and we continue to have full confidence and trust in the local authorities”.
The Brazilian government stated clearly on Tuesday that while it respected citizens’ right to protest, it would not hesitate in taking action to ensure fans could get to and from the grounds.
“Brazil is a democratic country and everyone has the right to express their ideas, whatever they are,” said Brazil’s Deputy Sports Minister Luis Fernandes. “But while peaceful demonstrations must be helped, those wanting to see World Cup matches have the right to go to the stadium and watch games peacefully, and that we guarantee.”
The Brazilian government has pledged to spend at least 26.6 billion reais (7.8 billion pounds) on stadiums, airports, security and telecoms for the World Cup, which will take place in 12 Brazilian venues next June.
But in addition to the cost overruns - something government officials have claimed is normal - at least four of the 12 World Cup stadiums are expected to be white elephants, unused after the tournament and unable to recoup the massive investment, according to the government’s own audits court.
The national stadium in Brasilia, where the Confederations Cup kicked off on Saturday, was the most expensive of all 12 arenas. No first division clubs play there, however, and it will rarely be used after the tournament.
The local teams who will use stadiums in the Amazon city of Manaus and Cuiaba in Brazil’s western farm belt rarely get more than 1,000 fans at their games.
More seriously, urban transportation projects, the tournament legacy that would most benefit the general public, are late, over budget and in some cases simply not happening.
Authorities have admitted they will not build the promised bus lanes, metro lines or tram services in at least five of the 12 host cities in time for the tournament.
Many of the protesters at Monday night’s rallies held up placards against FIFA and the World Cup and an internet campaign is underway to convince the expected 600,000 foreign visitors not to come.
“The realisation has set in they’ve just spent all this money on these first-world facilities but that most people live in third-world conditions,” said Christopher Gaffney, an American professor of urban planning who lives in Rio de Janeiro and is studying preparations for the World Cup.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA head Sepp Blatter were booed by a capacity crowd at the Confederations Cup opener and other matches have provided a rallying point for protests in several cities so far.
In Brasilia, police fired tear gas at protesters who tried to reach the opening match and they also fought running battles with demonstrators outside the Maracana in Rio and the Mineirão arena in Belo Horizonte.
One of the biggest grievances is not just that most Brazilians will be priced out of the competition, Gaffney and other protesters said. It is that Brazil has bent over backwards to foot the bill for the competition but has not shown the same urgency in funding failing public services.
The disconnect between what Brazilians get and what FIFA gets is perhaps clearest in the stadium being built for the opening match.
When Corinthians unveiled their plans in 2010 for a 48,000-seat stadium the cost was estimated at 350 million reais. After FIFA decided to hold the prestigious World Cup opener there the cost immediately jumped to 820 million reais and it is expected to top 1 billion by the time it is finished.
Corinthians blamed the increase on FIFA, saying it demanded more space for sponsors and dignitaries, more elevators instead of stairs, and better quality - and more expensive - materials in many areas.
Romario, the former World Cup winning striker turned critic, summed it up in an Instagram post on Tuesday: “I told you, the 2014 World Cup is going to be the biggest robbery in history of Brazil.”
Editing by Todd Benson and John Mehaffey