World Cup: Off-pitch violence 'no cause for concern'

SINGAPORE - For close to a year, protests and riots have served as a fiery - at times fatal - prelude to a tournament dubbed the greatest show on earth.

But the municipal secretary for tourism of Fortaleza, one of the host cities at this month's World Cup Finals in Brazil, believes that the violence off the pitch will have no effect on the football on it.

"There is no cause for concern," Joao Salmito said yesterday through an interpreter.

"All these riots are not about the World Cup; they are about a largely middle-class population becoming more mature when it comes to airing their grievances.

"And they are making use of a time when the eyes of the world are on Brazil to do so."

The 39-year-old was speaking to The Straits Times on the sidelines of the World Cities Summit held at Marina Bay Sands' Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

In nine days, his city's Estadio Castelao will play host to the Group D opener between Uruguay and Costa Rica - the first of six matches to be played in the north-eastern city.

It marks the first time that football-mad Brazil is hosting the World Cup since the country returned to democracy in 1985, but the lead-up to what was intended as a coming-out party has been marred by violence.

Much of the riots stemmed from locals taking exception to what they feel is excessive spending on infrastructure and stadiums - some of which still have question marks hanging over their readiness.

Hosting the month-long tournament is expected to cost Brazilian taxpayers US$11 billion (S$13.8 billion), significantly more than the US$3 billion shelled out by South Africa four years ago.

Already, concerns have been raised that many of the 12 stadiums - some remodelled, others built, all to the tune of US$3.6 billion - will become white elephants after the football bonanza.

But Salmito insisted that all the venues were developed "with post-World Cup plans in mind".

The 60,348-capacity Castelao, for example, features function rooms and restaurants that have been in operation for some time.

The city of Fortaleza will reap the benefits of a new 2.3 billion reais (S$1.27 billion) metro line and a hospital in its metropolitan area - both of which were primarily public-funded.

"These are things that will improve the standard of living for the local population," Salmito pointed out.

"But the state of Ceara (of which Fortaleza is the capital) is quite poor, so we would never have been able to afford such infrastructure without the government's financial aid."

And such benefits are what he hopes will be the lasting legacy of a World Cup that, according to a study by Ernst & Young, is expected to reap 6 billion reais in tourism revenue.

Fortaleza alone is expecting to welcome 500,000 visitors over the next five weeks - a sixth of the three million tourists that visited the coastal city last year.

That figure made it the fourth-most popular Brazilian city among international tourists last year - behind Rio de Janeiro, Manaus (at the heart of the Amazon rainforest) and Foz do Iguacu, home to the Iguacu Falls.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity to show the world what the city of Fortaleza is all about," Salmito said.

"The World Cup is the biggest event on earth; one in every three people will watch it and you simply cannot put a price tag on a commercial like that."

This article was first published on June 5, 2014.
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