Renato Spencer / Getty Images

Brazil World Cup stadiums languish, adding insult to injury for some

Low turnout in soccer season left bitter taste for those affected by construction, questions as to how to pay for upkeep

RECIFE, Brazil — Marinalva Ferreira da Silva has more reason than most to resent Recife’s hulking Arena Pernambuco, one of the stadiums constructed for last summer’s soccer World Cup. She said the demolition work that was carried out so the venue could be built tore the heart out of the neighborhood of Timbi, where she has lived since 1962.

“They knocked down half the street. Our house was spared by centimeters,” she said. “There used to be supermarkets, a bakery and a butcher’s shop, but now there’s nothing. And because there are fewer people around, it’s not safe. There’s more crime.”

Ferreira da Silva, an accountant, said authorities removed about 130 families to make way for construction. “They offered compensation, but in many cases people didn’t have the right documentation to claim it, even though they’d lived here for years, so they got nothing. The government said lots of the people who lived here were illegal invaders. But they weren’t. They paid their taxes like everybody else.”

Her anger over what happened to her community has not, however, dampened her enthusiasm for soccer. “I love the game. People ask me how I can still cheer for Brazil after all that’s happened, but it’s the government, not the players, who are to blame,” she said. “I like all three Recife teams, though I’ve never been to a match at the stadium.”

Ferreira da Silva is not alone in choosing to spend her weekend afternoons away from the arena. For two short weeks in June the stadium was awash with the vibrant colors of visiting World Cup teams and fans. But on most match days since then, vast swaths of the stadium have adopted a more uniform color scheme: the red of thousands of empty seats.

The Arena Pernambuco is one of a number of Brazil’s new stadiums that have failed to pull in crowds now that the World Cup is over. With Brazil’s first post-cup soccer season over, the futures of at least seven of the venues constructed or rebuilt for the event — work that, according to Brazil’s Federal Accounts Court, cost a total of R$8.44 billion (US$3.1 billion), 50 percent more than originally budgeted — are in question.

The money spent and the fact that some of the new stadiums already appear doomed to underuse confirm fears over the wisdom of Brazil's hosting of the tournament in the first place and over the scale of the event, which featured 12 host cities, a number many considered excessive. Such concerns helped spark massive public demonstrations in June 2013, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest political corruption, shoddy public services and the amount being spent on expensive soccer venues in a country with pressing development needs. 

“We spent far too much,” said Amir Somoggi, a Brazilian sports finance and marketing consultant. “We could have had fewer host cities and built stadiums more appropriate for Brazilian soccer.”

Three stadiums in the northeastern cities of Recife, Natal and Salvador attracted an average of fewer than 15,000 fans per game this season — approximately a third of their capacity or less — while a fourth stadium in the region, the Estádio Castelão in Fortaleza, managed a slightly higher average of just over 18,000 fans.

And the challenge of filling the stadiums of the northeast is unlikely to get easier anytime soon. Both Serie A teams from Salvador, Vítoria and Bahia, were relegated to Serie B this season, leaving this vast region, which covers nine of Brazil’s 27 states and is home to about 56 million people, with only one team in Brazil’s top division next year.

The situation is much the same in Brazil’s three other potential World Cup white elephant cities: Brasília, Cuiabá and Manaus. Not one of these cities boasts a team in Brazil’s top two divisions, and the majority of fixtures played at the stadiums, both before and after the World Cup, have featured not local teams but one of the popular clubs from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, such as Flamengo, Vasco da Gama and Corinthians.

Such teams are happy to take the occasional home game on the road in order to tap into their vast nationwide fan bases and, for an afternoon at least, fill stadiums that would otherwise lie dormant. While such a strategy proved reasonably popular among fans at first, attendance at such games has declined as the novelty has worn off. The last game in Brasília this season, a Serie A clash between Botafogo and Atlético Mineiro, was attended by fewer than 4,000 people.

In Manaus, the Arena da Amazônia has staged only four official games since the World Cup ended five months ago. “The stadium is a loss maker, and the government has to get it off its hands,” Ariovaldo Malizia, a senior member of the Amazonas state government department responsible for managing the stadium, told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper in October. With the running costs of the venue estimated at about $700,000 a month (US$256,000) per month, the government has said that it intends to transfer the stewardship of the arena to the private sector for the next 25 years.

Brasília’s Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, which cost R$1.4 billion (US$526 million) to construct, making it the second most expensive stadium in the world, hosted only 13 non–World Cup games this year. In Cuiabá there are rumors that, like in Manaus, local authorities are considering passing the Arena Pantanal, which attracted an average crowd of about 17,000, over to the private sector.

According to Folha de Sao Paulo, the most expensive stadium to maintain is Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, at R$4 million (US$1.46 million) per month.

“It wasn’t necessary for Brazilian football or even the World Cup to have 12 host cities. But political interests in each state dictated that these pharaonic, unrealistic stadiums were built in places like Brasília, Cuiabá and Natal,” said Somoggi.

The Brazilian government defends the value of the new arenas. “The World Cup stadiums were designed as multiuse arenas,” said a representative from the Ministry of Sport. “Estádio Mané Garrincha in Brasília, for example, has already shown that a multiuse model can work effectively. Since opening in May 2013 until November this year, 70 events were held at the venue — 44 soccer games, 11 shows and festivals and 15 corporate events. According to the stadium management company, the revenue from these events will cover upkeep costs and generate a profit as well as creating jobs and boosting the city's economy.”

In Recife “the main problem with the Arena Pernambuco is transport and the fact that the city’s two biggest clubs, Santa Cruz and Sport, would rather play the majority of their games in their own stadiums,” said Cassio Zirpoli, a journalist at Recife’s Diario de Pernambuco newspaper, referring to the fact that only the city’s smallest team, Náutico, has taken up permanent residence at the venue. He also said that a number of access routes to the stadium remain unfinished five months after the World Cup.

The Federal Accounts Court revealed in early December that of the 35 major mobility works promised for the World Cup, billed as the main legacy of the event for ordinary Brazilians, only six were finished in time for the cup and that since then, little or no progress has been made on any of the outstanding projects.

Recife journalist Eduardo Amorim said, “The Arena Pernambuco is completely unnecessary, and the choice of its location was a huge mistake. It meant that as well as the cost of the venue itself, mobility works costing billions of reais — which remain unfinished, benefit no one and have negatively affected the lives of thousands — would also be required.”

Amorim cited an elderly local resident, Seu Ramos, as one of the victims of the stadium. Amorim said Ramos, who lost part of his home in the community of Loteamento São Francisco to make way for a stadium access road, died in July still disputing the value of the indemnification the government offered him. “Now his family will have to try to get some form of compensation. It’s an endless, tragic battle,” he said.

While the Articulação Nacional dos Comitês Populares da Copa NGO estimated in 2013 that up to 250,000 people could be expelled from their homes because of the construction work required for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the government says that only about 10,800 Brazilians lost their homes as a result of World Cup construction. “The most important thing is to make sure that all these families receive the compensation they need," senior minister Gilberto Carvalho told Brazilian media in July, describing the NGO estimate as “baseless.”

The Pernambuco state government has defended itself against accusations that the compensation on offer does not reflect the value of people’s homes. “We’re public servants, the compensation is paid with public money, and there are technical guidelines for evaluating the value of a property,” state attorney Thiago Arraes de Alencar Norões told BBC Brasil before the World Cup.

Despite the criticism, venue authorities, buoyed by average crowds of close to 30,000 in stadiums in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte in the south and southeast of Brazil, remain positive about the future. They point to the multiuse capacity of the stadiums (venues have hosted events ranging from Paul McCartney concerts to a mass wedding) and increased revenues — according to a recent study by the BDO consultancy group, this season’s 380 Serie A games brought in R$215.7 million (US$78.9 million) — a record for Brazilian soccer.

Such an increase, however, is largely due to increased ticket prices. The BDO report showed that the cost of match tickets in Brazil has gone up 12 percent over the last 12 months, with prices of R$150 ($55) or more not uncommon for big games in the new stadiums. Just last month, Belo Horizonte club Cruzeiro attempted to charge visiting fans R$1,000 (US$365) to attend the Copa do Brasil final at the Mineirão stadium — before a local judge ruled that such a price was “disproportionate and unjustifiable.”

“There was a small improvement in crowds after the World Cup because fans were still excited after the tournament, but things soon went back to normal. The tickets are far too expensive when compared to the quality of the soccer on offer,” said Somoggi. “The prices at the Cruzeiro game excluded not only working class fans but upper class Brazilians too.”

Related News

Poverty, Soccer, World Cup

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Poverty, Soccer, World Cup

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter