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Staging a global sporting extravaganza can cover a nation in glory – or in shame. Whether it’s the Olympics or the football World Cup, the attention of the world is drawn to the host’s infrastructure, politics and organisational prowess

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Given the intensity of the scrutiny, small wonder that many nations seek outside help to ensure they are ready for the glare of publicity. In the case of Brazil, it has made PwC its main outside adviser for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off this month. Soon after Brazil won the race to host the event in 2007, PwC was selected to evaluate how best to prepare the country’s infrastructure for the influx of tens of thousands of visitors. The firm was hired again in October 2013 to assist with the final preparations. 

‘Mega events like the World Cup are not just about building stadiums,’ says Mauricio Girardello, a partner at PwC until 2012, who helped spearhead Brazil’s preparations and who now works at consultancy TBA Advisors in São Paulo. ‘The World Cup places unusual strains on a nation’s airports, transport links, hotels and security. Getting everything up to scratch takes years and many billions of dollars of investment.’

The Brazilian government was attracted by PwC’s considerable experience in stewarding such projects. Girardello had already done similar work for the World Cups in South Africa in 2010 and Germany in 2006. He even subsequently wrote a book on the run-up to the 2010 event. 

Potential for catastrophe

The first lesson from studying such events, Girardello argues, is that plenty can go wrong. The 1972 Munich Olympics, for example, is largely remembered for a terrorist attack that ended in the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a German police officer. Tragedies on that scale have been rare, but glitches such as the electrical storm that cut off TV coverage of the 2008 UEFA European Championship semi-final match in Switzerland between Germany and Turkey for about 10 minutes can also dent a reputation for organisational competence. Such technical problems can be avoided, Girardello says, by using backup systems. 

Richard Dubois, a current partner at PwC in Sao Paulo, explains that the firm was involved at the very beginning to help Brazil identify and head off such mishaps. For a start, Brazil had to choose 12 cities out of 18 contenders where matches would be played. ‘We helped several cities submit their plans to the government and to Fifa,’ he explains. ‘We interviewed all the relevant branches of the state and city government regarding the plans they had for the event and their capabilities.’ All but one of PwC’s recommendations were selected, including Cuiabá, Salvador and Natal. 

Once the selection process was completed, PwC started work on a more comprehensive project of national preparedness. ‘We checked out the infrastructure these towns had in place against the plans they had proposed and produced an implementation guide.’ 

This exhaustive process exposed several potential worries. One was the limits of Brazil’s airports. ‘From our experience in South Africa and Germany we estimated that around 20,000 fans would try to fly to the next event within hours of one game ending,’ says Dubois. ‘Yet most of the terminals at regional airports only had the capacity to process about 1,200 passengers every hour. That was a recipe for huge delays and massive lines.’ 

PwC put forward a plan for increasing capacity at terminals and boosting the number of flights. Such upgrades alone were expected to cost R$8bn (US$3.6bn). The scale of the problem is illustrated by the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which ranks Brazil’s airport infrastructure 134th out of 144 nations in terms of quality. 

The second major concern was a shortage of hotel rooms. ‘We are not just talking about tens of thousands of ticket holders but also often their partners and families,’ explains Dubois. ‘That is no problem at all for cities like São Paulo, but it is for smaller towns.’ In addition, Brazil needed to convince private investors that extra hotel capacity could be kept full even after the event had ended. 

The PwC team also sought to identify gaps in urban transport infrastructure. ‘Enabling visitors to move around as easily as possible within cities was another priority,’ Dubois says. This was where the bulk of federal government spending was meant to go – around R$10bn, he adds. ‘About 100 different projects – including efforts to extend subways and build light train lines in cities,’ says Dubois. ‘These projects are likely to be the event’s most important legacy, since they will enhance the lives of Brazil’s citizens long into the future.’ 

PwC evaluated the electricity infrastructure and broadcast centres, along with the ability of hospitals to cope with a rising volume of patients. ‘It is just like a wedding,’ says Girardello. ‘Technically all you need is the priest to get the job done, but you also need to think about other aspects of the event, like the church, the venue and the cake.’ 

Finally, there were the stadiums themselves. The logistical challenges of building/upgrading 12 stadiums for the event have been imposing. So far this aspect of the preparations has proved among the most troublesome. Back in 2010 the estimated cost for stadiums was R$5.3bn; it is now expected to cost around R$8bn. The 71,000-seater Estádio Nacional alone in Brasília cost R$1.4bn and is being financed by the government. It is not clear what use it will be in the future, since the city has no major football team. 

Popular anger

Worries over spiralling costs have created additional planning problems for Brazil. Ever since June 2013 there have been sporadic street protests about the poor quality of Brazil’s public services while government funds are ‘wasted’ on stadiums. Recent polls now show that just 48% of Brazilians favour hosting the event – a remarkably low number for a football-crazy nation that has won the World Cup a record five times. 

Dubois says this upsurge of protests has intensified safety problems. ‘One of the new challenges we are facing now is on security,’ he says. There is a possibility that arenas will be blocked by demonstrations. Rio state alone has already trained 833 security officers to help ensure the event goes smoothly, and prepared plans for everything from terrorist attacks to demonstrations. More than 4,500 officers are expected to be trained before the event. 

‘We helped give Brazil a very solid plan for this event,’ says Girardello. ‘But the implementation has been very poor.’ The bulk of the preparations for the World Cup has been attempted without PwC’s assistance, with the firm only being hired again in October 2013. PwC is now working hard to finalise preparations. ‘Now much of our work is on the operational plan,’ says Dubois. ‘This involves issues such as how the public transport networks are set up to take passengers to the airport or the security details.’ 

Unfortunately, many of the transport projects expected to benefit the Brazilian people did not materialise. ‘Lots of really good developments have been abandoned,’ says João Castro Neves, a Brazil expert at consultancy Eurasia in Washington. ‘In some cases, excessive red tape got in the way. It simply took too long to get permits and agree on who was going to do the building.’ 

The Brazilian government also failed to attract as much private and foreign investment as expected. ‘The terms they offered to outsiders were not always attractive enough and they left everything too late,’ Castro Neves argues. ‘For example, five large airports were only nationalised over the past two years – far too late to help with this World Cup.’ As a result the government and its BNDES development bank have ended up footing more of the bill than expected. 

That is bad enough, but the Brazilian public may be unforgiving when it comes to any glitches in the actual running of the event. ‘At the moment the president, Dilma Rousseff, is still the favourite to win re-election in October,’ Castro Neves says. ‘But big mishaps in the World Cup, along with a revival of protests, could certainly change that.’ 

Although PwC was heavily involved in assessing the infrastructure needs for the event, it was not given the job of following through on its recommendations. The government’s decision not to seek significant outside help in implementing its World Cup plans until relatively recently may be one that it comes to regret. 

Christopher Alkan, journalist based in New York 

Last updated: 12 Jun 2014