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Brazil’s World Cup fever shutting down businesses

First Published      Last Updated Jun 23 2014 04:59 pm

Rio de Janeiro • Lucky students in Chile went home early, many Brazilian offices and stores went dark, and across the megalopolis of Mexico City traffic was as calm as midnight. With three Latin American countries playing for their World Cup futures Monday, fans across the region succumbed to soccer fever, slowing regular business to a crawl.

Brazilians, who already are used to generous time off for Carnival celebrations and Catholic observances, have enjoyed even more holidays during the monthlong soccer tournament.

When Brazil's national team plays, many workplaces across the country shut down. In host cities such as Rio de Janeiro, the government declared half- or full-day holidays on game days to clear the streets of commuters and enable soccer fans to move about with greater ease.

Last week, there were only two regular work days in Rio, a city of 12 million people. This week will be much the same.

On Monday, before Brazil defeated Cameroon 4-1 in Brasilia, Catia Santiago was soaking up the sunshine on the golden sands of Copacabana beach rather than head to work to sell hair products.

"I'm going to take a hit financially," Santiago said. "I'll probably earn about 30 to 50 percent less, but I will have had 200 percent more fun than usual."

Indeed, critics contend all of the time off is bad for business.

Financial newspapers have reported the volume of trade on Sao Paulo's Bovespa stock exchange began to slow even before the June 12-July 13 tournament. Fecomercio, a Sao Paulo-based group representing the goods, services and tourism sectors, warned that those businesses may lose up to $13.5 billion due to lost productivity and the need to pay double salaries to people who work government-declared holidays.

However, Brazil's Tourism Ministry has said the World Cup itself will inject that much money into the nation's economy, offsetting any such losses.

Katia Andrade, a saleswoman for a Rio online data storage company, complained that the extra time off was putting her way behind on her yearly revenue target.

"The World Cup is literally costing me money," Andrade said. "Since the beginning of the year, projects have been lagging behind, with everybody putting things off until after the Cup. And now, with almost every day a public holiday, it's totally impossible to get anything done."

Mexico City started to resemble a ghost town by midday Monday as locals geared up for the Mexico-Croatia game in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, which Mexico won 3-1.

During the national team's matches, "one can cross Mexico City as if it were the middle of the night, stopping only at a few stoplights," taxi driver Alejandro Ramirez said, adding that traffic Monday morning already was about 20 percent lighter than a regular day.

In Chile, some schools and universities suspended classes ahead of the national team's match with the Netherlands in Sao Paulo, while thousands of people congregated on a central square fitted with a giant screen to follow the game. Chile lost 2-0, but still advanced to the tournament's second round.

Schools in Brazil also pushed winter break forward to coincide with the World Cup, as the drop-off and pick-up of school children is a major source of traffic jams.

While students may be rejoicing, a recent column on the website of Veja, a right-leaning newsmagazine, called such school and business holidays a "confession of incompetence" — evidence that authorities' failure to build adequate infrastructure forced them to concoct a fix to Brazil's traffic woes.

"The government has seven years to prepare for the event — seven years! Of course they weren't capable," the column by Rodrigo Constantino said. "And now they adopt a typically Brazilian solution, which is jerry-rigging and cobbling together a way out.

"This is definitely not a serious country," he concluded.

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