Soccer notes: World Cup fans face rough landing in Brazil
Sao Paulo • Before they see their teams battle on the fields, soccer fans arriving in Brazil will first have to fight their way past airport scaffolding, terminal flooding and two-hour taxi lines.
The World Cup opens Thursday and airports are bracing to welcome the crush of international travelers flying in for soccer's premier event. Brazilian authorities insist they're ready, but passengers may find themselves in for a rough landing.
For example, officials had nearly seven years to prepare Brazil's largest airport, Sao Paulo's Guarulhos, yet only a quarter of the new $1.3 billion international terminal is operational. Many weary travelers will deplane into a dim terminal with severe concrete architecture dating from the military dictatorship of three decades ago.
On Monday, the wait time for a taxi at Guarulhos was more than two hours and nearby traffic was at a standstill due to a crippling strike by subway workers.
"Let's just put it this way: We are not showing the world the best we could," said Luiz Gustavo Fraxino, an airport infrastructure consultant in Curitiba, one of the cities hosting World Cup games.
Experts blame poor planning and excessive government control for the airport problems. A long-delayed privatization drive began too late for most upgrades to be ready.
President Dilma Rousseff has dismissed complaints that Brazil isn't ready. The overstrained infrastructure, she says, is a sign of a nation on the move, as the middle class expands and previously poor Brazilians take to the air for the first time.
"We aren't building airports just for the World Cup, just for FIFA," she recently said. "We are building for Brazilians."
For most travel in Brazil, flying is the only practical choice. The country is the size of a continent and there are no passenger rail connections, not even for the 260-mile stretch between its two largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. To top it off, resources were stretched thin because Brazil insisted on preparing 12 cities to host the games, rather than the eight preferred by FIFA. Last week, even Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes acknowledged that decision was a mistake.
Travelers arriving in Rio will be lucky if they don't instantly break out in a sweat. Even though it's Brazil's cool season, temperatures are hovering close to 80 degrees this week and humidity is near 70 percent. And, when it's warm, the air conditioning tends to fail.
In Brasilia, a recent 20-minute tropical cloudburst was all it took to flood the linoleum floors of its spanking-new airport, forcing travelers to splash through the terminal. In other host cities, passengers have to walk underneath scaffolding or see brand new facilities from afar because they weren't finished in time to be tested.
In general, comforts common to other airports, like power outlets or functional Wi-Fi, are difficult to come by. Travelers who lack Portuguese skills may have a hard time understanding local authorities, airport announcements or signage.
There can be more serious problems, too. A consumer protection agency audit at Rio's airport earlier this year found irregularities such as blocked emergency exits, out-of-date fire extinguishers and plugged-up urinals.
Alex Lima, a safety officer on offshore oil platforms, said Rio's airport is stretched to the max even when there's not a major international event taking place.
"I'm here twice a month for work, so I'm immune to all the craziness," Lima said as he waited for a flight to Sao Paulo. "But for people who've never been here before and are used to 'normal' airports, this has to be pretty shocking."
If travelers expect problems to be smoothed over by the warm hospitality Brazilians are known for, think again.
In a reflection of the country's dour mood, a recent Pew Research Poll said six of 10 Brazilians feel it was a bad idea to host the World Cup because it has diverted money from health care and education.
That may explain why the only evidence of festivity in Rio's airport are a few banners that appear to have come straight from a copy center and a giant plush Fuleco, the tournament's armadillo mascot. There are, however, plenty of porters in maroon uniforms hoping to persuade gullible tourists to illegally exchange dollars and euros for reals.
On a recent day at Sao Paolo's airport, three young men ran around frenetically trying to find anyone who could point them to their connecting flight to Rio. A soccer fan from the Netherlands was confused when immigration officers took her passport for additional review without any explanation in English.
Christina Gubitosa, who traveled with a group of friends from Philadelphia, felt lucky to have some help.
"We are happy we are traveling with a friend who studied abroad here," she said. "Otherwise we would be lost."
UEFA wants Sepp out • In a stinging rebuke for Sepp Blatter, European football leaders told the veteran FIFA president on Tuesday that he should leave the scandal-hit governing body next year.
Blatter has sought support in Sao Paulo for a re-election bid in 2015 and faced a hostile UEFA membership, which bucked the trend of overwhelming backing from FIFA's other five continents.
They had urged the 78-year-old Swiss this week to run for a fifth presidential term next year despite a slew of scandals and negative headlines under his leadership.
UEFA executive committee member Michael van Praag and English Football Association President Greg Dyke directly challenged Blatter not to stand again during a closed-door meeting of Europe's 54 football nations described by one delegate as "a grilling."
"People link FIFA to corruption and bribery and all kinds of old boys' networks," Van Praag told reporters later.
"FIFA has an executive president and that means you are responsible," the Netherlands federation president said he told Blatter. "People tend not to take you very seriously anymore."
The volatile meeting recalled open conflict between Blatter and European football that flared around his original election in 1998, and again for his re-election in 2002 during a financial scandal after FIFA's then-World Cup marketing agency collapsed into bankruptcy and sparked a kickbacks investigation.
UEFA, with 53 of the 209 FIFA members, has a second chance Wednesday to oppose Blatter. That will come in the public arena of the FIFA Congress floor, when he says he will seek acclaim for his expected re-election run.
Van Praag insisted his was not a personal attack on Blatter and deflected questions on whether he could be proposed by UEFA as a rival candidate.
UEFA members reminded Blatter he promised them in March 2011 that his current four-year term would be his last.
"He said that he changed his mind and every human being is allowed to change his mind," van Praag said.
Blatter arrived at the UEFA session after telling other confederations he had a burning desire to remain in office.
UEFA board members lined up later to list grievances with Blatter, including his handling of the 2022 World Cup bidding contest and subsequent issues with Qatar as host, plus criticism of European media for reporting allegations of corruption implicating FIFA officials.
In meetings with Asian and African delegates on Monday, Blatter suggested racism was a factor in the British media's reporting of the Qatar controversy.
"I said to him, 'I regard the comments you made about the allegations in the British media in which you described them as racist as totally unacceptable,'" Dyke told reporters.
England's delegate on the UEFA board, David Gill, said he thought Blatter should go in 2015.
"Personally, yes, I think we need to move on," said the former Manchester United chief executive, comparing FIFA to the International Olympic Committee, which changed its president after the Salt Lake City bidding scandal.
UEFA President Michel Platini, long seen as Blatter's likely successor, is expected to decide in September if he will challenge his former mentor.
Platini did not meet with reporters Tuesday, though his secretary general, Gianni Infantino, denounced Blatter's description in Sao Paulo this week of a "storm" around world football.
"There is not a storm in football. There is a storm in FIFA and this storm is not new," Infantino said. "It's something which is coming for years and years and years, and every time it's something else."
UEFA honorary president Lennart Johansson, who lost the 1998 FIFA election in a ballot long dogged by allegations of vote-buying by Blatter supporters, said his old rival should go.
"He has done some good things for FIFA," Johansson said, "but he should stick by what he said (in 2011)."
Still, FIFA members outside Europe show little desire to change a system and leadership that have delivered booming revenues.
Blatter told the 11 Oceania countries earlier Tuesday in a different Sao Paulo hotel they could expect bonuses from 2014 World Cup revenues higher than four years ago, when each got $550,000.
Oceania leader and FIFA vice president David Chung promised Blatter full support in the presidential ballot scheduled next May 29.
"Rest assured, the 11 members in this room are the first in line," Chung said.
Duck! • Netherlands captain Robin van Persie and defender Daryl Janmaat emerged unscathed Tuesday after a collision with a kite surfer on Rio's Ipanema beach.
Neither player showed any ill effects of the incident at the Netherlands training session Tuesday afternoon at the Estadio da Gavea in Rio.
Janmaat, who is expected to be in Louis van Gaal's starting lineup for Friday's Group B opener against Spain in Salvador, said the kite surfer nearly floored him during a stroll along the beach in front of the Dutch team's hotel on Monday.
He told Dutch public broadcaster NOS he "almost got a kite on my head. A man was kite surfing and he fell exactly where I was standing."
Though both Janmaat and Van Persie were struck as the kite surfer landed, Netherlands team management said neither player was badly hurt in the incident.
Van Persie ran freely during the session and scored a number of free kicks, while Janmaat practiced crossing from the right flank something he will be required to do as a wing back in the 5-3-2 system coach Louis van Gaal is expected to deploy against Spain.
Day of the Lovers • Will Brazilians choose love, or love of the game? With the World Cup opening on the same date Brazil traditionally celebrates its version of Valentine's Day, merchants are helping lovers and spouses figure out how to embrace both.
Operators of gift stores, love motels and restaurants are encouraging Brazilians to move their romantic plans up by a day, so Thursday's tournament kick off won't spoil anyone's love life.
The Brazilian motels association said Tuesday it's partnered with beer company Brahma to promote mottos such as "First I will kiss you, then my jersey."
Celebrated every June 12, Brazil's Day of the Lovers is a major shopping day, along with Christmas and Mother's Day. For love motels and restaurants, it's one of the biggest days of the year.
Antonio Carlos Morilha, director of the Brazilian Association of Motels, said he persuaded 70 motels, mostly in Sao Paulo, to offer discounts and special packages of food, drinks and chocolates to entice lovers to come in ahead of the World Cup.
"We were running the risk of not selling as much as other years," he said. "We wanted to offer incentives so they know it's better to do it a day earlier."
Restaurants are unveiling special menus on Wednesday. Chocolate shops, jewelry stores, beauty salons and clothing boutiques alike are offering early-bird discounts.
Retailers are selling it like the best of both worlds: Couples can celebrate their romance without anyone having to miss out on soccer's biggest event.
Wellington Castro, a 33-year-old information system technician, was buying chocolates Tuesday for his wife. Intimacy will be impossible when Brazil meets Croatia, he said, so the couple plans to go out for dinner a day before the opening match.
Thursday "is game day and only that," he said. "We prefer not to mix both. The day of the game is just a mess. We have the whole family over."
But Marco Luque, a popular comedian, said couples shouldn't move their plans. In a Facebook post, he said having the two events on June 12 will make it a historic day.
"It will be the first Valentine's Day men will get their way: soccer, barbeque, beer and your lady rooting for the team happily by your side," he wrote. "Enjoy it because it will never happen again."
Philly breaks union • The Philadelphia Union have fired coach John Hackworth after two seasons on the job.
The Union selected assistant Jim Curtin as interim team manager on Tuesday. Hackworth was 23-30-20 in two seasons, and led the Union to a franchise-best 12 wins in 2013.
The Union are 3-7-6 this season and are eighth in a 10-team MLS Eastern Conference.
Curtin played more than 200 games for the Chicago Fire and was chosen an MLS All-Star and the Fire's defender of the year in 2004. He helped the squad to two U.S. Open Cup titles in 2003 and 2006, as well as the 2003 MLS Supporters Shield.
Curtin played his final two seasons in the League with Chivas USA before retiring in 2009.
Social soccer • This year's World Cup will play out on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and messaging apps like WhatsApp just as it progresses in stadiums from Sao Paulo to Rio De Janeiro.
Nearly 40 percent of Facebook's 1.28 billion users are fans of soccer, better known as football outside of the U.S. and Australia. On Tuesday, the world's biggest online social network is adding new features to help fans follow the World Cup the world's most widely viewed sporting event which takes place in Brazil from June 12 to July 13.
Facebook users will be able to keep track of their favorite teams and players throughout the tournament in a special World Cup section, called "Trending World Cup." Available on the Web as well as mobile devices, the hub will include the latest scores, game highlights as well as a feed with tournament-related posts from friends, players and teams. In addition, an interactive map will show where the fans of top players are located around the world. The company is also launching a page called FacebookRef, where fans can see commentary about the matches from "The Ref," Facebook's official tournament commentator.
Social media activity during big sporting events such as the Olympics and the Super Bowl has soared in recent years and should continue as user numbers grow. In 2010, when the last World Cup took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, Facebook had just 500 million users. Now there are just that many soccer fans (people who have "liked" a team or a player) on the site, the company says.
Facebook has recently focused on making its mobile app usable on simple phones that use slower data speeds since many of its newest users are in developing countries. As a result, Rebecca Van Dyck, head of consumer marketing at Facebook, said the World Cup hub will also be available on so-called "feature phones." Here the section will be "little less graphical" than what's shown on smartphones and on the Web, she said, but will include the same information.
Users can get to the World Cup hub by clicking on "World Cup" in the list of trending topics on the site.
In a nod to Twitter, Facebook, earlier this year, began displaying trending topics to show users the most popular topics at any given moment. The feature is currently available in the U.S., U.K., India, Canada and Australia.
"This is our first foray into this, especially for a big sporting event like this," Van Dyck said. "We're going to see how this goes. If people enjoy the experience it's something we'd like to push on."
Facebook, which counts 81 percent of its users outside the U.S. and Canada, is unveiling its World Cup features at a time when the company is working to become a place for more real-time, public conversations about big events a la Twitter. Such events attract big advertising dollars, though the company is not saying how much money it expects to make from World Cup-related ads.
Not to be outdone, Twitter touted in a blog post last week that the "the only real-time #WorldCup global viewing party will be on Twitter, where you can track all 64 matches, experience every goal and love every second, both on and off the pitch."
Fans can follow individual teams or players and use #WorldCup to tweet about the matches, and follow official accounts such as @FIFAWorldCup, @ussoccer for the United States team and @CBFFutebol for Brazil's soccer governing body, for example. Clicking on #WorldCup or #WorldCup2014, meanwhile, will take you to Twitter's hubs for the event.
Twitter is also bringing back the "hashflags" it introduced in the 2010 World Cup. Users who tweet three-letter country codes for participating nations such as BRA for Brazil or ESP for Spain will see the country's flag appear in their tweet. Twitter says it will then tally the mentions in its "World Cup of tweets."
The World Cup is the planet's most widely viewed sporting event. According to FIFA, which organizes the tournament, an estimated 909.6 million viewers watched at least one minute of the final 2010 game when Spain beat the Netherlands. In comparison, nearly 900 million people watched at least part of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. On Twitter, more than 24.9 million tweets were sent out during this year's Super Bowl, up from 13.7 million just two years earlier.
Because it takes place over several weeks, marketers are gearing up for "a marathon, not a sprint," said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst for research firm eMarketer.
"Developing countries will be a key target for global brands," she said. "They will work hard to capture the attention of soccer fans in Latin America, Asia, Africa. The challenges (include the fact) that all the games are taking place in one place and the customers and marketers are in multiple time zones. This will require around the clock marketing."
For fans traveling to Brazil for the game and hoping to tweet and post about it on Facebook, the country's mobile communications services might pose their own challenge. Dropped voice calls are common even without the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans descending on the country. Accessing the Internet can be incredibly slow, and there's even some worry about network blackouts.
"World Cup visitors won't be able to communicate the way they want to," Christopher Gaffney, a visiting professor at Rio de Janeiro's Federal Fluminense University whose research focuses on Brazil's preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. "Instagram, Twitter, social media will not function at world class levels but at Brazilian levels, so people visiting Brazil will experience the frustrations we face every day."
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