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CUP OF WOE

The air force had been put on high alert, frigates trawled the coastline while a huge contingent of policemen kept an eye out for trouble-makers on the ground as Brazil prepared, not for war, but for the inauguration of the football World Cup. Thirty-two nations will prepare to wage a month-long battle on the pitch to win a tournament that has been tarred with unmistakable political colour. The decision to host the tournament at an estimated cost of $11.5 billion — a sum that is supposedly bigger than the gross domestic product of a quarter of the world’s nations — at a time when the Brazilian economy has been struggling to contain unemployment and low wages has, expectedly, led to mass protests against the president, Dilma Rousseff. To make matters worse, the government reneged on its promise not to use public money to meet the stiff expenses. Three billion dollars have been spent from tax-payers’ money, adding fuel to public ire. The expenditure has allegedly boosted the profits of Odebrecht, Brazil’s most famous construction company and the chief contributor to Ms Rousseff’s party, while seriously impairing the government’s abilities to fund welfare projects. Consequently, there has been no let-up in the public protests: subway workers in Brazil’s biggest city had gone on strike recently to force the tight-fisted government to settle a pay dispute. The sustained people’s movement has not only tarnished Brazil’s image in the eyes of the world but has also deepened Ms Rousseff’s worries as she prepares to seek re-election to office. In a departure from protocol, Ms Rousseff has decided not to deliver an inaugural speech lest she be greeted with whistles from jeering spectators, as was the case during the Confederations Cup.

Fifa, like Ms Rousseff, has its own share of troubles. The tardy pace of construction work has raised fears about the state of preparedness of some of the stadiums that are supposed to host the matches. The world governing body of football has also been soundly criticized for imposing a tournament on an ill-prepared and unwilling nation on account of the lure of profit. Fifa, which is expecting to pocket four billion dollars from ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcasting rights, has insisted on a tax-waiver, a move that is bound to deepen the debt burden of the host nation’s cities.

Ms Rousseff is hoping that quality entertainment — international singers performed during the curtain-raiser — and a gallant showing by the Brazilian football team will help the nation forget its worries. But is a successful tournament enough to shield Brazil from entrenched inequality and government apathy?