By Paulo Prada
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The upcoming soccer World Cup in Brazil was supposed to be the party to end all parties.
What more could a fan want?
The home of Carnival and "the beautiful game," as Pelé once famously called it, finally had the economic, political and social stability to host the tournament for the first time since 1950 and any of Brazil's subsequent five World Cup titles, more than for any other nation.
After a half-century in which its soccer prowess outdribbled its development, Latin America's biggest country could at last flout its success both on and off the pitch.
But less than a week before kickoff on June 12, Brazil feels anything but festive. An economic boom that catapulted 40 million people out of poverty in the last decade, and motivated Brazil to host the world's most popular sports event, has waned.
With rising inflation, urban gridlock and soaring crime as a backdrop, protesters over the past year have rallied against $11 billion in World Cup spending and alleged corruption that drove up the cost of building stadiums and other infrastructure projects, some of which were never delivered.
Sportscasts on team strategy, prevalent before previous World Cups, are splitting air time with news reports featuring soldiers and police deployed in 12 host cities to ensure that labor strikes, demonstrations and crime don't disrupt the tournament.
At its most telling, the lack of enthusiasm is evident on sidewalks, squares and corner cafes. Absent the riot of yellow and green that normally erupts every four years, many public areas remain remarkably staid even as Brazil prepares to host an event that it always celebrated from afar.
"People are disgusted," says Mariana Faria, the owner of a party supply store in central Rio de Janeiro, where sales are 40 percent lower than when the last World Cup took place in South Africa four years ago. "Nobody wants to spend money on something now associated with waste and corruption."
The pall over Brazil counters what global soccer fans expect to be a month of sheer sporting extravaganza. And it could be that Brazilians will perk up if their team starts to dazzle.
The tournament, the first in which all previous Cup winners have qualified, will feature almost every major star in the game – from Neymar, Brazil's young hope, to Lionel Messi, the Argentine considered by many to be the era's best player, to Cristiano Ronaldo, the cocksure Portuguese who would argue otherwise.
The dour mood is also a far cry from what most envisioned when Brazil secured hosting rights in 2007. Back then, organizers hoped the prevailing narrative would be that of a resurgent country with a national team poised to exorcise Brazil's historic loss to Uruguay in the final stages of the 1950 tournament at Rio's Maracanã stadium, also the venue for this Cup's final.
GO BY DONKEY
Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose folksy charisma helped Brazil get awarded the tournament, recently betrayed the surprise he and other leaders feel amid so many complaints.
Dismissing questions about the lack of metro service to stadiums and problems with other infrastructure that has fallen far short of early promises, he told Brazilians to make do. "We never had problems walking," Lula said, suggesting spectators go to games "on foot, barefoot, by bike, by donkey."
President Dilma Rousseff, Lula's successor and protegee, has urged Brazilians to put their frustrations aside and peacefully welcome the more than 800,000 foreign visitors expected.
Roiled by mass demonstrations that disrupted a warmup tournament last June, and a wave of ongoing strikes in several host cities, Rousseff authorized 57,000 troops to complement state police forces with tasks ranging from security perimeters around stadiums to armed escorts for team buses.
"We are a people that will welcome the tourist not with violence, but with affection," she said last week in a speech at Rio's international airport, where repairs continue despite her presence there to inaugurate the renovation.
Rousseff is still favored to get re-elected in October. But recent polls show increasing traction for rival candidates, unease about the economy, which barely grew in the first quarter, and growing distaste towards the World Cup.
The Washington-based Pew Research Center this week reported that 72 percent of Brazilians in a recent survey expressed a general sense of dissatisfaction, compared with 55 percent a year ago. Sixty-one percent of those polled disapprove of hosting the World Cup. [ID:nL1N0OJ135]
So where did Brazil go wrong?
To many, the Cup symbolizes the gulf between what Brazil's leaders' promises and what they deliver, be it good schools and hospitals or an offshore oil bonanza, discovered just as Brazil won the rights to the tournament, that has failed to blossom because of high costs and bureaucracy. [ID:nL1N0O115A]
So slow were the World Cup preparations, including seats still being installed at the opening stadium, that the secretary general of FIFA, soccer's governing body, as early as 2012 said Brazil needed "a kick up the backside."
Most major global sports events, of course, are fraught with criticism and handwringing ahead of showtime. And more often than not, there is a sigh of relief once the opening ceremony is over and the games begin.
That's why some in Brazil's upper crust have sought to get people excited about the tournament. In what many read as a tone-deaf scold, supermarket magnate Abilio Diniz wrote in a recent op-ed piece that "we should take advantage of global attention to show the grandiosity and opportunities of Brazil, not our problems."
In the northern Rio neighborhood of Tijuca, Ricardo Ferreira, a parking garage owner, last weekend worked with friends to decorate an intersection where an impromptu sidewalk viewing of the 1978 tournament has since blossomed into the "Alzirão," one of the city's biggest World Cup street parties.
Under overhead cables where Ferreira strung more than 10 miles worth of plastic ribbon and other decorations, demonstrators had painted a protest message of "SOS" for the creaky public health system. Neighbors have been asking whether Rio would still flock to the party.
"I hope so," he says. "We're not the government. We're not FIFA. We still like soccer here, don't we?"
(Editing by Todd Benson, Martin Howell)