BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Imagina na Copa. The pessimist's war cry can be heard at the water cooler and in the elevator, in the padaria (bakery) and the bar. If you think Brazil's infernal traffic, dizzying crime rates and frequent airport chaos are bad now, then just imagine what it will be like during the World Cup.
The doom and gloom is both justified and overstated. Over the last few years it has been hard to tell which has been slower: Brazil's off-pitch Copa do Mundo preparations or the national side's attempts to inch its way back toward respectability. Work on many stadiums started terribly late, with the general sense of sloth leading to FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke's notorious (and ill-received, locally) "Brazil needs a kick up the ass" comment last year. Of a total of 109 stadium and infrastructure works planned in 2010, only 15 have been finished (including six stadiums), and many have been canceled completely, including monorail lines and bus lane networks in a number of cities. With a year to go until the first ball is kicked, four venues remain less than 70 percent ready.
Where the stadiums have opened, not much has gone smoothly, with perhaps the worst case being the first game at the new Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, where fans faced queues of biblical proportions on arrival and were then left without food or water (or lights in the bathrooms) once inside. Then part of the roof covering of the spiffy Arena Fonte Nova split open during a heavy Salvador rainstorm.
Then there is the debacle at Rio de Janeiro's famed Maracanã, which hosted the decisive match of Brazil's previous World Cup in 1950 and will be the setting of the final on July 13, 2014. The grand reopening game against England at the beginning of this month was temporarily called off after a local judge issued an injunction because of missing safety certificates.
Even if things are ready on time, it will all have come at a formidable expense. The total cost of stadium building or rebuilding alone was originally forecast at around $2.5 billion. That prediction now stands at $3.3 billion and rising, almost all of it from public coffers, with the Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasilia alone coming in at an eye-watering half a billion dollars.
It was always thus, a cynical Brazilian might mutter, though why it should be is a lengthier debate. Brazil's arcane, Kafkaesque bureaucratic processes, bloated with sub-committee after sub-committee and divided among federal, state and municipal authorities, are one reason ("it's easier to organize a World Cup in a country with, um, a little less democracy," Valcke said recently, and almost everybody in Brazil knew what he meant.).
Another factor was the terribly late start. The country was officially awarded the right to hold the World Cup on Oct. 30, 2007. More than 18 months passed before the 12 host cities were announced in May 2009, and internecine squabbling in São Paulo meant the Mundial stadium in the country's biggest city, Corinthians' Arena Itaquera, was not officially confirmed until October 2011.
Then there is the deadening hand of cadaverous Brazil Football Confederation president Jose Maria Marin. While Marin (who was recently forced to deny having any part in the torture and murder of a journalist during Brazil's military dictatorship) and his cronies are not entirely to blame for the World Cup (dis)organization, they are symbolic of the corruption and stasis that pervades Brazilian football. Although the effect of the same on the World Cup and its funding may not be fully known until years from now.
"We're witnessing the biggest robbery in the history of the country," former playing great Romário said.
Additionally, there have been work stoppages in a number of cities, delays caused by occasionally unbenign tropical weather gods, and, at times, an undeniable air of drift. While the average Brazilian worker is far from lazy, neither can it be said that Parkinson's Law ("work expands to fill the time available for its completion") is an entirely unknown concept here (with the Brazilian version of the law perhaps requiring an "and then some" at the end).
Nevertheless, despite the sluggishness, Brazil is likely to get the job done eventually. By the time the World Cup rolls around many more urban infrastructure projects will have fallen by the wayside. There are likely to be more than a few horror stories of airport confusion and delays, but the stadiums will be ready, by and large, and traffic congestion will be eased by a proposal (admittedly of questionable educational benefit) to grant public holidays on game days, keeping commuters and school buses off the roads. The noises coming out of the capital, Brasília, remain bolshily confident.
"I'd give our preparations a nine out of 10," Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo said recently, rather generously.
Moaning aside, what will await fans when they get to Brazil? Most obviously, there is the glossy, tourist-brochure version of the country. There are the vibrant cities and dazzling beaches of the nordeste (Recife, Salvador, Fortaleza and Natal), a region traditionally blighted by poverty and neglect, but one that has undergone tremendous economic growth in recent years, and one of the country's most historic and culturally vivid spots.
There are the intoxicating, snake-hipped rhythms of Rio de Janeiro, the sheer dizzying scale of São Paulo, and Oscar Niemeyer's surreal architectural dreamscape in Brasília. There is the boundless hospitality (and curiosity) of the locals, the balmy tropical climate (though a word of warning here: the World Cup will fall smack in the middle of the northeastern rainy season, and June temperatures in the South and Southeast can get distinctly chilly), the bars that only close once the last customer has staggered woozily home, the endless mysteries of the Brazilian night.
Perhaps most intoxicating of all for football-obsessed visitors will be the thought of watching a World Cup in what is for many the spiritual home of the sport. What fan has not been thrilled to see the old clips of a seething Maracanã, the drums pounding, the commentator's delirious, pseudo-orgasmic cry of goooooooool!!!?
There is, clearly, more to Brazil than The Girl from Ipanema sashaying her way down the beach in a tiny bikini while sipping on a caipirinha and juggling a football on her dainty toes. This is one of the most complex societies in the world, where, despite the recent progress that an improved welfare system and increased minimum wage has brought, inequality remains deeply entrenched, and where the murder rate is correspondingly alarming (the number of homicides per year usually hovers around the 40,000 mark -- or higher).
Unsurprisingly, given such figures, the run-up to the World Cup has not lacked gory headlines -- from urban warfare among machine-gun toting traficantes in the favelas, to murderous torcida organizada gangs (the Brazilian equivalent of the 1980s British football hooligan, though considerably more socially complex) and the odd random true crime story, usually unrelated to football or the World Cup itself, such as the distressing tale of the American tourist raped on a Rio city bus in April.
While such problems, and public safety in general, are a concern for organizers and fans alike, foreign media tales of impending World Cup carnage are over the top. At least as far as visiting football supporters are concerned, Brazil is not the lawless badlands that it is often portrayed to be. The vast majority of those 40,000 murders occur in the favelas and suburbia of big Brazilian cities, tragically, among the country's most disadvantaged citizens.
World Cup visitors, who will mainly stick to the hotels, beaches, stadiums and tourist spots, are unlikely to be forced to confront such a reality. Even warring supporter factions (there have been more than 150 football-related murders in Brazil in the last 15 years, and two fans were shot and killed in Fortaleza the day before foreign journalists were taken on a tour of the Arena Castelão) are usually more related to disputes between gangs than purely footballing rivalries.
It can be safely assumed that the targets of such violence will not be visiting Japanese soccer fans. Furthermore, the sure to be eye-watering costs of tickets are almost certain to exclude less affluent Brazilians (the price of watching a Serie A game in Brazil has gone up 300 percent in the last 10 years). This is likely to be a thoroughly middle class World Cup.
In fact, if the wallets of departing fans feel lighter than expected, it will most likely be thanks not to bandits, but to hotel and restaurant owners. Brazil is a terrifically expensive place to live these days, and for many wily entrepreneurs, the World Cup will be an earnings opportunity not to be missed. A newspaper in Belo Horizonte recently found that a double room in one of the city's better hotels, which costs $103 on a normal weekend night, would set guests back $1,217 on the day of the Japan vs. Mexico Confederations Cup game June 22.
Another football guidebook fallacy is that games in Brazil are invariably played out in front of giant crowds amidst a heaving cauldron of noise. Due to a combination of factors, including absurd kickoff times (10 p.m. on a Wednesday, or 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday are commonplace), blanket TV coverage, a fear (justified or otherwise) of violence, a curious cultural trait where fans only consider attending games worthwhile when their team is winning, and those steep ticket prices, the average Serie A crowd last year stood at a miserable 13,000 -- lower than the MLS average, and similar to Australia´s A-League. The majority of Brazilian league games take place in front of depressingly vast swathes of empty seats.
So much for the domestic game. To paraphrase L.P. Hartley, the World Cup is another country: they do things differently there. More than 75 percent of tickets for the much lower profile Confederations Cup have been sold. Come the main event next year, 600,000 tourists are expected to invade Brazil.
The country will be transformed into a sea of color, with bars and restaurants decked out in canary yellow and green, and organized and not-so-organized entertainment on every street corner. Whereas in other years the World Cup has simply taken place, in Brazil in 2014 it will take over, and when the Seleção play, the country will grind to a standstill, the streets and factories eerily quiet, the only sounds the shouts from the bars or apartment windows.
Despite the grumbles, and they are many and legitimate, the World Cup in Brazil will represent a unique sporting, cultural and historical synthesis. With apologies to fans of England's 1996 European Championships theme song, this time it feels as if football really is coming home. And, whisper it, but with sturdy performances in recent friendlies against England and France, even the Seleção is providing grounds for a little hope. The last, optimistic word might be left to the country's president, Dilma Rousseff.
"Brazil's going to shine, on and off the pitch," Rousseff said. "We're going to show everybody ... how hospitable we are, and that this is a happy, peaceful country."
Let's hope she's right.
James Young writes about Brazilian football for The Independent / Independent on Sunday, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about "love, death and football" in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.