CUIABÁ, Brazil — The four-day annual rodeo here draws about 80,000 fans, almost twice as many as the state soccer league attracted all of last year. No local soccer team has played in the Brazilian first division since the 1980s.
So many Brazilians were surprised when this sprawling, radiator-hot city of 570,000 — the capital of the soy-rich state of Mato Grosso — was chosen as one of the 12 host cities for the World Cup, and even more so when officials decided to invest nearly $1.4 billion to overhaul Cuiabá’s antiquated infrastructure and catapult it into modernity for all the world to see.
“We’re a world leader in agribusiness,” said Maurício Guimarães, the secretary of Secopa, the state agency created to manage Cuiabá’s World Cup efforts. “We needed to lift up our capital to match the clout of our state.”
That may still happen, eventually. But when the June12-July13 World Cup begins, Cuiabá will in all likelihood look much as it does now: a construction site of partially completed overpasses, underpasses, road expansion projects, bridges and light-rail lines. Soccer fans looking to pick up a few words of Portuguese before they arrive might skip the “bom dia” and “obrigado” (“Good morning” and “thank you”) and work on “desvio” and “em obras” (“detour” and “under construction”).
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“It’s a shame the city will appear as it does to receive tourists,” said Hélio Pimentel, a musician and writer of a collection of essays about Cuiabá. “They should have invested just in the stadium, the airport and the principal avenues. But the plan was too extensive. The city will come out well, but when? It could be one, two, five, 11 years.”
Little-known even within Brazil, Cuiabá was perhaps the least likely of the cities chosen to host part of the tournament. Even the Amazonian capital of Manaus, a World Cup site often caricatured as a jungle outpost by many in the world press, has 1.8 million inhabitants, direct flights to Miami and decades of experience with rain-forest-bound travelers.
Some international tourists spend a night in Cuiabá on their way to seek jaguars, maned wolves and hundreds of bird species in the nearby Pantanal wetlands. But until now, Cuiabá’s biggest draw has been decidedly regional: Expoagro, a state-fair-like spectacle that attracts 300,000 people over 11 days, many of them for the four-day rodeo. Still, a close relationship between the nation’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and a soy magnate who was governor here, Blairo Maggi, may have tipped the scales for this city to become a World Cup showcase.
Agribusiness and cowboy culture undergird the state’s identity. Stores sell snakeskin cowboy boots and mean-looking spurs; outside one, Casa do Ginete (roughly “House of the Skilled Horseman”), a 17-year-old rodeo competitor named Gabriel Neri showed off a long vertical scar on his abdomen, courtesy of a bull’s hoof.
“The adrenaline is without comparison,” he said. “I love the sport.”
Rodeo, not soccer
Rodeo’s popularity comes at the expense of local soccer teams, which are lucky to draw a couple of thousand to games. That has led to fears that Cuiabá’s sparkling new Arena Pantanal will become a white elephant after the tournament. Yet, that is not the point, Guimarães said.
“We have a great soccer tradition,” he said. “For the last 20 years, it’s been in decline. But I’m very confident that the World Cup was just the kick needed to bring it back.”
Even as other Brazilian cities struggled to complete projects, Cuiabá has stood out for its troubles. Countless deadlines have come and gone, engineering flaws exposed, corruption investigations begun and commutes snarled. Four hundred and eighty electricians, welders, plumbers and others have been scrambling to complete the new airport terminal by June 5.
“In all my years in engineering,” said Lucas Ribeiro, an engineer working on the project for Infraero, the state company that runs Brazil’s airports, “it’s the most condensed time frame I’ve ever seen.”
The biggest and most contentious project of them all, a light-rail system estimated at $714 million, is impossible to miss: The project has cut swaths down the center of major thoroughfares throughout the city, downing trees and churning up earth.
It has also been the subject of political and judicial intrigue. Original plans called for a much cheaper system of dedicated bus corridors, but in 2012, Gov. Silval Barbosa approved a change in plans. The state’s Public Ministry, a body of independent prosecutors, objected.
“There was no technical study, no viability study” said Clóvis de Almeida Jr., one of the Public Ministry prosecutors assigned to monitor World Cup projects. “There was no other possible outcome besides chaos.”
Even little projects have proved vexing: Despite five years to plan, workers may not complete one of the two training camps for the eight national squads that will come through Cuiabá for matches, and work began only in May on the space that will hold the FIFA Fan Fest, where fans will be able to watch live broadcasts of the games.
Local World Cup officials have said that necessary projects would be finished by the time the tournament begins June 12, and that all others would be completed by Dec. 31, when the state planning agency will be dismantled and Barbosa leaves office. But the official line and local opinion are so contradictory that the two sides seem to inhabit two separate cities.
“Everyone’s in doubt about whether they’ll finish the work,” said João Flávio Gonçalves, a 25 year-old businessman. “It’s just one huge robbery.”
Officials stress that the real benefits from the World Cup will materialize in years to come. Public opinion could shift as well, said Xavier Freire, a sociologist who led a federally funded study of the Cup in Cuiabá. “If the Brazilian side is champion,” he said, “and the government finishes 80 percent of the projects, the population is going to forget about both unmet deadlines and cost.”
Mauro Mendes, Cuiabá’s mayor, even found a silver lining in the unfinished construction:
“A place where public works are in progress is a place that is being transformed,” he said.