Friday, March 2, 2012

World Cup 2014: Plan B?

Back in 2003 FIFA, as part of its confederation rotation policy, decided that the 2014 World Cup would be held in South America. In 2004 CONMEBOL, the South American soccer confederation, unanimously voted Brazil to be their recommended candidate to host the World Cup. In 2007, after Columbia and Argentina withdrew from the running, FIFA officially awarded the 2014 World Cup to Brazil. This was the last time that the rotation policy would be used to determine the host confederation; but perhaps this decision came one World Cup too late. Ever since Brazil won the hosting rights the concerns have been circulating about the country's ability to host hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world in their still developing stadium and transportation system. While several of the stadiums in Brazil are true gems to the millions of fans who support their club teams each year, the overcrowded airports, lack of facilities, and few VIP options made FIFA a bit concerned. As we sit just over one year away from Brazil hosting the 2013 Confederations Cup, a primer for the actual World Cup, there are real concerns that the country will not be ready. FIFA representatives will travel to Brazil next Wednesday to view the progress for themselves and if the progress is as bad as it seems, they may have to start discussing a possible Plan B. Could Brazil actually lose the World Cup? We take a look at the latest developments and what Plan B might mean if FIFA is forced to make a decision.

Just for fun, do a web search for "Brazil+FIFA"; just about every article you'll find has a headline such as "concerned", "delayed", "behind", etc. Most recently an interview with FIFA's Secretary General, Jerome Valcke, stated that FIFA was "irritated" and criticized the country for focusing more on winning the tournament than preparing the country to host. There are many concerns for FIFA, but the two primary areas of interest are the stadiums and the transportation system. 

Estadio National in Brasilia Feb 2012
Courtesy of Evaristo SA/AFP/Getty Images
The stadiums issue got off to a bad start when 17 cities submitted interest to host matches; FIFA's policy at the time was to limit host cities to between 8 and 10. Brazil submitted a request to FIFA to allow for 12 cities to be used to host the tournament, and instead of questioning how that would be accomplished, FIFA approved the plan in late 2008. Ultimately the plan required 6 new stadiums, Brasilia to be demolished and rebuilt, and the remaining 5 stadiums to all be renovated to FIFA World Cup Standards. Recapping, of the 12 stadiums hosting the tournament, none of the 12 were World Cup ready as of mid-2009. To say the stadium projects have progressed slowly would be kind. At Beira-Rio Stadium in the construction site has sat empty for over 8 months as a labor and funding disputes raged on between the contractor and club Internacional, who plays in the stadium. The concern is so grave at Beira-Rio that Brazil may have to withdraw the stadium as a host location because the renovations simply can't be accomplished in time for the World Cup. Take a look at the February 2012 picture of the new stadium in Brasilia under construction; the lower bowl is complete and the upper levels are being built with a canopy eventually covering the stands. The catch is that this stadium is suppose to not only be ready for the World Cup in 2014, but for the Confederations Cup in June of next year! Some would argue that the stadium issues facing Brazil are no worse than those that plagued South Africa leading up to the 2010 World Cup. Even though FIFA had to step in with a $100M bond to get the South African venues done on-time the scope of work was far less and was mostly limited to the stadium upgrades.

As dire the situation may sound for the stadiums, the transportation system to support the World Cup may be even worse. We all remember back to the alarm and concern over long flights from North America and Europe, 12-16 hours to South Africa, for the previous tournament. Some airlines were accused of price fixing and limiting flights and seats to justify the higher prices; what the actual truth was we may never know. However once fans arrived in Johannesburg they were greeted with a modern airport to make connecting flights to the other host cities or local bus and train options for the stadiums around the capital. Some of the further removed stadiums such as Rustenburg had limited access and several planes arriving in Durban for the semifinals were forced to turn back when the airport did not have a place for them to unload. However, signs of the problems with Brazil's airports reached a boiling point last month when the government decided to sell off shares of their 3 largest airports to private investors in a last ditch effort to fund improvements in time for the World Cup. Airports in Rio, Sao Paulo, and Brasilia will now be run by private companies who promise to invest several billion dollars (US) in terminal improvements prior to the World Cup. The catch is that the firms have yet to present their plans and schedules to the government to support the 2014 tournament. Additionally, the geography of Brazil and its existing highway system almost precludes all other forms of transportation besides air travel. Of the 20 largest airports in Brazil, 17 are already operating at full capacity, that's without the estimated 500,000 foreign fans arriving for the World Cup. Additionally roadways and rail systems are all scheduled for major overhauls, but again politics and labor disputes have delayed these projects. There has also been concerns about Brazil's ability to provide power plant to support all the increase needs in the airports, railways, and stadiums, but we won't go there.

So let's assume that FIFA goes to Brazil next week and comes back with a sick feeling in their stomachs; what is Plan "B"? In the same interview where Valcke slammed Brazil for their efforts he also stated that "time is running out and there is no Plan B." Although that seems like the case, and in all likelihood the World Cup will remain in Brazil even if it's a disaster, there is a Plan B waiting in the wings. Back in 2008 when schedule and labor disputes raised a red flag for the World Cup in South Africa, FIFA stated that they had a plan in place with 3 countries that could host the tournament with just one year's notice. Although FIFA didn't name the countries the general consensus at the time was the United States, England, and Italy, but a similar plan today would also include Germany, Spain, and France most likely. These countries are "safe houses" for FIFA, they have the stadiums, transportation systems, and accommodations in place to host the tournament immediately. But could this really happen, could FIFA move their crown jewel at the last minute from Brazil to some other country? It's already happened before when FIFA was forced to move the 2003 Women's World Cup from China to the United States with just a few months notice due to the SARS outbreak. Surely with both the United States and England missing out on the 2018 and 2022 World Cups each country would bend over backwards if FIFA came knocking.

Will it come to that; I truly hope not. Brazil is the heart and soul of soccer in South America, winners of 5 World Cup titles and the birth place of some of the game's greatest players. Brazil has qualified for 20 out of 20 World Cups, now only time will tell if the country will be qualified to host the tournament.

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