From the beautiful game to birthday parties: the brutal reality of what happened to Brazil’s World Cup stadiums

From the beautiful game to birthday parties: the brutal reality of what happened to Brazil’s World Cup stadiums

Every four years, FIFA bring the greatest show on earth to their chosen destination, watch events unfold and leave. The World Cup has produced some of the most cherished, controversial and extraordinary moments in sporting history, but what happens when the event single-handedly damages the host nation’s economy? What happens when stadiums built for the stars are constructed on hugely-inflated costs and corruption? What happens when those venues are left to rot in isolation, with very little football interest?

Well, five years on from Brazil’s dream tournament that turned to a nightmare on the pitch, the country is still reeling from hosting 64 football matches in the summer of 2014.

Cast your minds back to the final days before Brazil kicked off the competition against Croatia in São Paulo. Furious protestors took to the streets of the country’s cities, burning flags and causing mass disruption to tournament organisers. They claimed that the billions being spent on the World Cup would’ve been far more useful if it was pumped into education and healthcare in a place already plagued by poverty.

Those protestors could see the dark clouds that were forming above the flashy floodlights and they knew that hosting the tournament would bring strife to their nation in the long run. They thought that hosting the World Cup would turn out to be a massive own goal from the government. Somewhat symbolically, Marcelo put through his own net just 11 minutes into the finals. Then, Neymar inspired a turnaround that sent the whole of Brazil into a football-mad trance and all their troubles were forgotten.

The mood has changed now. “Brazilians have not benefited from the tournament,” Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes said just a year later. “There has been no legacy for them. The World Cup still makes them angry. There is regret that we even staged it.”

While infrastructure costs were massive, the tournament left several soulless bowls dotted across the country that were once called football stadiums. The São Paulo Arena, now used by Corinthians, is one of the few success stories to come away from the World Cup. Other than Neymar’s curtain-raiser, this was where Luis Suárez’s double sealed England’s group-stage fate, Ángel Di María sunk Switzerland with a late extra-time winner in the last 16, and where Maxi Rodríguez fired Argentina into the final with a thunderous shoot-out spot-kick.

With the ground not finished going into spring of 2014, temporary stands were installed to fulfil the attendances promised beforehand. Like almost every other venue, rushed construction led to inflated costs, fuelled by corruption. 

A final bill of £350m, 15 percent higher than originally expected, was footed partially by taxpayers, and is now being covered by Corinthians themselves. This cost of playing at their new home is proving to be hugely unsustainable for the Brazilian giants. They make around £300,000 for every home game they play there but pay around £1m in maintenance fees at the stadium each month.

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Naming rights are still to be sold and corporate and hospitality areas are not being utilised as well as they should be. As a result, Corinthians have very little left over to spend on themselves. “Our biggest challenge isn’t football use, it’s the remaining 320 days of the year,” said head of operations at the club, Lúcio Blanco. While the stadium has turned to hosting concerts, other disused venues across the country aren’t finding it as easy to fill their grounds. 

At the time of opening, the 72,788-seater Estádio Nacional in capital city Brasília was the second most expensive football stadium in history. Only Wembley could beat its £570m cost, which was three times as much as planned. The likes of Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi all took to the pitch here during the tournament. Now, that same grass is trod on by lower league amateurs drawing crowds of less than 5,000 people.

This depressing reality can’t have been unforeseen by Brasília civilians while the stunning project was being built. It’s not a city with rich footballing culture and the clubs that now call it home are only involved in district leagues.

There have been reports that its expansive car park was being used as a bus depot in the two years after Brazil had played the final match there in their third-place playoff defeat to the Netherlands. With football clearly not the answer to selling seats, there are plans to turn the stadium into a non-sporting venue and boost the surrounding area with various new facilities.

While São Paulo and Brasília staged some of the tournament’s biggest games, the final showpiece was reserved for an iconic venue. Almost £500m was pumped into bringing the Maracanã into the 21st century in the years before the World Cup. England were invited to open it in the summer of 2013, but it was Messi who christened it his arena in the first World Cup match staged there since 1950.

His shimmy inside and shot past Asmir Begović lit up the sparkling stadium in the group stages and announced the arrival of the eventual Golden Ball winner, if not the World Cup victor. When Messi left the ground solemn-faced for the last time after defeat to Germany, there were still high hopes for the future of the Maracanã. 

Local clubs Flamengo and Fluminense tried to play there but huge maintenance costs made making it their permanent home out of their reach. Then there were disputes between the government and the Olympic organisers as to whether the stadium was returned in an acceptable state or not after the 2016 Games in Rio. No one took responsibility and the ground went into footballing hibernation.

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Offices and media suites were looted, broken seats were ripped out and dumped in a pile outside, greenery grew around its frame, and the pitch that had hosted Mario Götze’s pragmatic chest and volley grew muddy and bare. “For football in Rio and for the people of Rio, the World Cup was the worst thing that happened,” proclaimed president of the Rio Football Federation, Rubens Lopes. Now, after almost three years of inactivity, Flamengo and Fluminense have moved back in for major fixtures and hope to attract crowds large enough to be able to stay this time.

With Brazil not scheduled to play at the Maracanã until the final, the ideal ending looked perfectly set up. That was until fate, in the form of seven German goals, intervened in that iconic semi-final in Belo Horizonte. The Mineirão was the scene of Brazilian football’s darkest day and something that every local has tried to forget.

Atlético Mineiro had called the Mineirão home until £190m was spent renovating it for the World Cup. Now, due to the ginormous cost of using their home stadium, they’ve had to leave. The Estádio Independência, whose capacity is almost a third of the Mineirão’s 64,000, now hosts the majority of their matches as well as some of Cruzeiro’s fixtures, as they can’t afford to use the Mineirão full time either. 

Attempts to bring the World Cup to as many Brazilians as possible meant straying away from the football-mad east coast and heading inland to places like Cuiabá and Manaus. That’s where the real disaster stories are being told. Cuiabá’s Arena Pantanal hosted just four matches that summer, with James Rodríguez’s hat-trick against Japan its last contribution to proceedings.

You’ve probably never heard of Cuiabá Esporte Clube – and there’s a reason for that. They were only founded in 2001 and, after three years of footballing inactivity between 2006 and 2009 due to financial issues, they’re usually found in the third and fourth tiers of Brazilian football. According to Braitner Moreira in the Correiro Braziliense, Cuiabá coughed up an average capacity of just 381 people at the Arena Pantanal in their campaign in Série D in 2016.

Attendances have grown with the club’s fortunes and, after promotion to Série B last year, they are playing in the second tier for the first time in their history. Monthly maintenance bills of over £3m are being paid through public funds; suddenly, watching Russia draw 1-1 with South Korea there doesn’t seem worth it.

Manaus was the most polemic of the host cities in 2014. The industrial city is found deep in the Amazon and isn’t accessible by road. The £120m budget that was provided to build a brand-new stadium eventually rose to £200m by the time construction was finished. With Série D outfit Nacional the only tenants, the stadium is still operating at a loss.

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When you consider this is one of the poorest parts of an already struggling country, it makes no sense. There was understandable anger and bafflement from the local community. The venue is shaped like a wicker basket used in the region but that’s as far as the organisers paid attention to the surroundings. 

“For the indigenous communities and favela dwellers, it’s hard to see so much money spent on the stadiums when there is such hunger and poor health, and that money didn’t need to be spent,” the chief of the local Sateré-Mawé tribe told the Guardian in 2014. “I feel like FIFA and Brazil have robbed our culture – all of us tribespeople feel that way. If they wanted to use our imagery, they should have included us. They know we love football, and they’ve insulted us. I blame the government more than FIFA because they’re Brazilian and so should have been watching out for us. Instead, they have turned their backs on their own people.”

There were rumours that Manaus may use the stadium as “a centre for temporary detainees” after the World Cup amid worries that the arena wouldn’t be used. Local sides now tend to play their matches at their training grounds instead of at the 44,000-seater ground. All this trouble just to see Mario Balotelli head past Joe Hart?

Recife, a city in the north of the country, has two big clubs with lots of potential. A new stadium would benefit the community and give Náutico and Sport Club something to build success on. However, the venue was built out of town and fans were forced to drive 40 minutes on the motorway to get there, without traffic. Náutico president Edno Melo scorned, “This isn’t our home, it’s awful here,” in an interview with the i.

The supporters persuaded the club to move back to their old ground, the Estádio Aflitos, after crowd figures plunged following relegation to Série C. The club is now on its knees financially. Sport Club have decided they want to build their own new home instead at a cost of £145m, but those plans have been delayed time and again.

There are tales of woe strung across this great footballing country. The one of Natal’s Arena Das Dunas, the scene of Luis Suárez’s bite on Giorgio Chiellini, trying to raise funds through hosting weddings and birthday parties is probably the most embarrassing of the lot. All these failings in the form of football stadiums have damaged Brazil as a country.

Whether by coincidence or not, the nation’s GDP fell by 30 percent from 2014 to 2015, while the unemployment rate doubled in the three years after the tournament. “We did this, above all, for Brazilians,” Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff said before a Brazuca ball was kicked. The Copa América beckons for Brazil this summer, with four venues from the class of 2014 taking hosting duties again. Let’s see if lessons have been learned.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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