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South Africa, Brazil World Cup stadia largely remain national burdens

When FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke returned to Brazil last month to talk about the long-term legacy of the 2014 World Cup, his timing could hardly have been worse.

"You can always criticize the fact that some of the stadiums are not used permanently, but they have all been used," said the former pantomime villain of the seemingly never-ending novelaof the country’s attempt to be ready to host last summer’s tournament. "The majority of people who came to Brazil the first time say they will come back. I am talking about tourism. Brazil got huge recognition following this World Cup."

Encouraging words. Unfortunately though Valcke, who had incurred Brazilian opprobrium back in 2012 when he said the country needed a “kick in the ass” over its sluggish World Cup preparations, was speaking at a time when the national capital, Brasilia, announced that its public health system was in a state of emergency.

“Due to a lack of human resources, only patients at risk of death will be seen,” read a sign in one hospital, as doctors went on strike due to unpaid wages.

Elsewhere, authorities in São Paulo and other large southeastern cities are currently discussing plans for water rationing in the midst of a serious drought, the gigantic Petrobras (the state oil company) corruption scandal rumbles on, economic growth has ground to a halt, and the political climate is toxic at best.

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While defenders of Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup will correctly point out that there is no direct causal link between the expense of staging the tournament and the country’s political and economic woes, the symbolism of the Brasilia healthcare crisis unfolding in the shadow of the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha World Cup venue, which cost $900 million (second-most expensive in the world behind Wembley) but hosted only eight games after the World Cup, could hardly be missed.

Nor is the Mané Garrincha Brazil’s only potential World Cup white elephant. Other stadiums, such as Arena Pantanal in Cuiabá and Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, stadiums in cities that are both without clubs in the top two divisions of Brazilian soccer, have also been little used. To add insult to injury, authorities recently declared the former venue unsafe and ordered its immediate closure for repairs – it has since reopened, but with only 50 percent of its capacity deemed safe for use.

Other stadiums, such as the Arena das Dunas in Natal, the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador and the Arena Pernambuco outside Recife, attracted average crowds of less than 15,000 last season. Nor is the situation likely to improve any time soon – both Salvador teams were relegated from Serie A at the end of last season, and of the three major clubs in Recife, only one has chosen to make the Arena Pernambuco its permanent home.

While stadiums in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre, Brazilian soccer’s traditional southern powers, have proved at least moderately successful, the overall balance sheet of the tournament is hardly a resounding success – particularly as, according to the Brazilian Federal Accounts Court, stadium construction work ultimately cost 50 percent more than was budgeted for in 2010

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​Valcke, it seems, believes time will prove a great healer, declaring that ”it will take time to use all these stadiums at their maximum.” And the use of the arenas has provided a few encouraging signs. Brazil’s soccer stadiums were hopelessly outdated before the tournament, and greater comfort and safety has seemed to encourage more family groups and female fans to attend games, leading, at least in part, to record Serie A gate receipts in 2014.

This statistic, however, is likely to be the result more of expensive tickets than of fans flocking to the stadium. The average top flight attendance in Brazil was just 16,555 last year – lower than Major League Soccer.

In any case, any slivers of good news are inevitably overshadowed by the costs, both human and financial, of hosting the event, such as the estimated $3.26 billion spent on stadium building, the vast majority of which came from the public purse; the thousands of Brazilians displaced from their homes to allow for construction work; and the fact that only six of 35 public transportation projects were completed in time for the competition (and many remain unfinished, or even not started, today).

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Perhaps the only surprising thing about any of this is that anyone is surprised at all. For Brazil and FIFA were given a warning of what was to come four years earlier at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

“Despite a relatively good infrastructure, South Africa chose to make significant renovations to one stadium and construct five new ones for nearly $1.8 billion. Although it has been quite difficult to confirm the funding for the stadiums, all stadiums are public-owned, which implies that the public sector was the main funder for the construction costs and renovations,” said a 2012 report by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies entitled “World Stadium Index - Stadiums built for major sporting events – bright future or future burden?” The total cost of hosting the event, according to the South African government, was over $3 billion

Just like in Brazil, once the challenges of hosting the event had been overcome, and the memories of the goals and the shouts of the crowd had begun to fade, the real battle lay ahead – how to make viable use of such venues after the tournament. And it has been a battle in which South Africa has been emphatically defeated.

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A mere four years after the competition, most of South Africa’s World Cup venues stand largely empty, used only for poorly attended local soccer games and the occasional concert. It is a long way from being enough to justify the huge construction and running costs of the stadiums. One of those is the $600 million Cape Town Stadium, which, according to a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail last year, is losing an estimated $6 million-$10 million annually.

“During the current (2012) season Ajax Cape Town has played 10 games in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) with a total attendance number of 40,000, giving an average of 4,000 in a stadium with a capacity of 55,000,” says the World Stadium Index, noting that “both of the local rugby teams, Western Province and The Stormers continue to play their games at Newlands Stadium (Cape Town’s historic rugby stadium).” While Ajax’s average crowds improved to 8,000 last year, it is still hardly enough to make the use of such a vast stadium worthwhile.

And the story has been repeated across South Africa. Other than the country’s two biggest teams, the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates, the PSL draws poor crowds, with average attendance varying between 2,000 and 10,000 – nowhere near enough to justify the costs of playing in expensive FIFA-standard stadiums. It is a situation that is now being reflected in Brazil. In addition to running costs, the expense of staging a game at the Arena Pantanal has been estimated at around $40,000, a sum clearly unviable when considering the crowds small local teams might hope to attract.

“With the low average attendance figures Ajax Cape Town and AmaZulu (who play at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium World Cup venue) have – and given how few larger events take place at these venues – one can question why these two stadiums were built at all. Both Cape Town and Durban had stadiums with capacities of over 50,000 before the World Cup, yet the South Africans built two brand new ones for almost $1 billion,” concludes the World Stadium Index.

Despite the costs, the mega-event cycle continues to turn. In 2016 Rio de Janeiro will play host to the Olympics, and following that it will be the 2018 World Cup in Russia – where the total cost of hosting the event was estimated at around a record $20 billion, prior to a looming national recession forcing the budget to be cut.

Given the experiences of Brazil and South Africa in hosting the event, what does the future hold for such competitions and the countries that pay for them? Christopher Gaffney, an academic geographer and author of the Hunting White Elephants blog who lived in Rio de Janeiro during the preparations for the 2014 World Cup, is not optimistic. 

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“The stadiums are totally isolated from the urban context. They have no public use, but are entirely commercial enterprises. So even in the best case scenario, when the stadium does pay for itself, it is the local people, who paid for the venue in the first place, who have to continue to finance it, which means people are paying for the stadium twice,” he says.

One of the ongoing debates that surround the hosting of events such as the World Cup or the Olympics, and the costly white elephants they almost inevitably leave behind, is who is responsible for the size and scale of the tournaments and the stadiums required to hold them? FIFA, with its grandiose demands that can often seem preposterously self-indulgent, particularly given the harsh reality of life for many in countries such as Brazil and South Africa, or local government, for pandering to the whimsies of Sepp Blatter and Co.?

It was a particularly hot topic in 2014, where the Brazilian government successfully pushed for the tournament to be expanded to include 12 host cities. While the official justification was to include more of this huge country in the festivities, skeptics suspect appeasing local political allies was just as persuasive a factor.

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“I’d say it’s about half on FIFA and half on local government,” says Gaffney. “There are creative ways around FIFA’s demands, like temporary media sections and temporarily increased stadium internet capacity … (at the same time) FIFA imposes no social, economic or political sustainability requirements … if they had such requirements, such as an economic feasibility study which had to be performed before a stadium could be accepted, that would force cities and states and countries to radically change the stadium model that they use for the World Cup.”

Gaffney does not see the situation changing any time soon, either.

“It’s a business model,” he says, “and unless that model comes up against a serious challenge, like it stops making money and becomes inefficient, then there’s no reason to change. FIFA are making more money than ever, the sport is more popular than ever, and even if the criticism is growing, there’s no fundamental recognition among the authorities that something’s wrong. FIFA are untouchable…after the World Cup they leave everyone with a vague memory of a great party, but a really lasting hangover.”