The Rio Report

A year to remember and a year to forget for Brazil

2013 was always likely to be one of those years for Brazil. With a certain international tournament lurking like a spectre, the country attracted the world’s gaze perhaps more than ever before.

The spotlight illuminated heartening highs – not least the embattled patriotism of the Confederations Cup win and the protests that provided the backdrop – but also plenty of causes for concern. Here is a potted review of the last 12 months.

Continental drift

Brazil’s dominance of the Copa Libertadores continued in 2013. Inspired by the evergreen Ronaldinho, mercurial scruffbag Bernard and (yes, really) former Manchester City striker Jô, Atlético Mineiro romped to victory in South America’s most prestigious club competition.

Eschewing the renovated Mineirão in favour of the cosy, bear-pit-like Independência stadium, Cuca’s side perfected a frantic, high-energy gameplan that came to be known as Estilo Galo Doido – Crazy Rooster Style. It was the first chapter of what would turn out to be a golden year for football in Belo Horizonte with Cruzeiro winning the Brazilian title in style.

To the streets

As the world’s media arrived in Brazil for the Confederations Cup, the country was enveloped by protest and dissent. What began as a small-scale demonstration over a proposed rise in bus fares blossomed into a mass movement, with people taking to the streets to demand better public services, more responsible government spending, less corruption and myriad other things.

While scenes of violence hit the headlines, the prevailing feeling last summer was overwhelmingly positive. Brazilians found their voice for the first time since the days of dictatorship, and seem bent on affecting overdue change. A repeat in 2014 seems inevitable.

“We have a team”

The Brazilian public was not the only sleeping giant to stir in June. Whipped into shape by proven copeiro (cup competition expert) Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Seleção were superb at the Confederations Cup, winning every game and inspiring hope that the World Cup could be a memorable one for home fans.

Their final performance against Spain, in particular, felt like a turning point. “We have found a way of playing that will help us make the most of home advantage,” Tostão wrote in Folha de S.Paulo. “We’ve reached a higher level than anyone expected.”

It remains to be seen whether Brazil have peaked too early, but they will enter the tournament among the favourites – a victory in itself given the travails of Felipão’s predecessors, Dunga and Mano Menezes.

Stadium issues

Off the field, however, Brazil’s World Cup preparations have been rather less successful. With spending on the competition a long-standing concern (contrary to government promises, much of the money has come from the public purse), scrutiny was always likely, and the country has routinely failed to pass muster.

Delays have been common and lengthy; six of the 12 arenas have yet to be inaugurated. The roofs of two stadiums – the Fonte Nova and the Mané Garrincha – have given way, requiring rebuilding. Workers have died in incidents in Manaus and São Paulo. Diverse problems were reported at the Mineirão, the Arena Pantanal and the Arena da Baixada.

Nor have the issues been restricted to the World Cup stadiums. The Engenhão in Rio (built less than a decade ago) was decommissioned for safety reasons, while sections of Grêmio’s sparkly new home were left empty for months after their fans’ beloved ‘avalanche’ celebration caused a safety barrier to buckle.

These aren’t exclusively World Cup issues of course, and FIFA’s rigorous safety standards will surely mean that all goes rather more smoothly come June. But the cost – both economic and human – of the shiny stadiums is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.

Common sense

The idiocy of some of those involved in the Brazilian game has been apparent again this year: from the violent thugs who ruined the final weekend of the season to the fat cats who cannot stop tinkering with the football calendar, there has been more than enough folly to go round.

Thank heavens, then, for the emergence of Common Sense FC, a de facto players’ union seeking a rejig of Brazil’s hectic footballing calendar, better treatment of players and plenty more besides.

While their demands are unlikely to be met wholesale in the short term, the group at least provided hope that some of the ills of the game can be remedied over time. When the World Cup goldrush is over, their efforts will be needed more than ever.

Jack Lang (Twitter: @snap_kaka_pop)