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Abandoned Arenas in the Amazon: The Aftermath of Brazil’s 2014 FIFA World Cup

No sporting event inspires excitement quite like the World Cup. Football, or soccer, is the most popular sport worldwide, and the country that adores it most might be Brazil. In 2014, the South American nation had the opportunity to host the World Cup for the first time since 1950. In the 64 years since their last time hosting, the competition changed dramatically. It now required billions of dollars of investment in public infrastructure and football stadiums.

Brazil promised the expensive development would greatly benefit the nation’s people, and not just in Rio or Sao Paulo. Brazilian officials promised new construction in twelve cities throughout the country, including some that received very little investment and attention. 

But, with the games approaching, it became clear that not all that was promised had been delivered. Some of Brazil’s most famous footballers called out the government for lack of follow-through on the projects. FIFA questioned whether the arenas would be ready in time. People in isolated cities in the middle of the Amazon asked whether spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a football stadium was worth it when they had much simpler, cheaper needs.

To some, the Brazil World Cup of 2014 was an embarrassment. But were the games as much of a shame as so many people claimed? Today, we’re going to look into this question by looking at the plans for infrastructure development, the arenas that were built, and the lasting legacy of the 2014 World Cup.

Bidding and Planning 

In 2003, FIFA announced that the host of the 2014 World Cup would be a South American nation. Colombia and Brazil declared their candidacy, and in 2007, Colombia withdrew. So, Brazil was chosen to host the event that meant so much to the country. The Brazilian Confederation submitted a plan to FIFA to have 12 different cities host at least 4 games each. FIFA approved.

Despite winning the right to host by default, Brazil put forward an ambitious plan for preparing. Of course, they would need new stadiums, and many of the existing stadiums, some of which were built for the 1950 World Cup, required extravagant renovations. But that wouldn’t be all. Brazil needed bigger airports, new roads and rails, office space for media, upgraded hotels for visitors, and housing for footballers.

Altogether, the country announced 93 projects across the country. Throughout the process, the government said all the right things. The national Minister for Cities declared that usefulness and sustainability would be a priority. Brazil had serious problems surrounding urban mobility and travel infrastructure, and government and football officials saw the World Cup as an opportunity to change that. Planning committees insisted that costs would be kept down. After all, past World Cups and Olympics had shown that expensive, elaborate construction rarely paid off in situations like these. 

The federal government teamed up with FIFA to set an overall budget of 13-billion dollars. Most of this would come from the taxpayers and public development banks. But, this didn’t all go to construction. About a billion was set aside for security, and 576-million was for prize money, the largest pot ever. Miraculously, the event would eventually come in under that budget. But, believe it or not, that actually wasn’t a good thing.

Travel Infrastructure

During the bidding process, the Brazilian government asserted that all public spending on construction would improve infrastructure. It’s unclear, in retrospect, just how much money was set aside for public infrastructure, as the number has been muddied by a lack of transparency. Still, the government planned almost one hundred new projects. 

Perhaps the most important would be the airports. First, there would be a massive influx of people into the country. Estimates placed the number at 600,000 travelers flooding in through international airports. At the same time, with games taking place in 12 cities across the country, some more than 4,000 km apart, domestic air travel would be even more critical. 

The bulk of the travel would be shared by 20 airports. Retrospective reports showed that, in the 31 days of the event, Brazilian airports shuffled ten-million people throughout the country.

Developments ranged from new runways to expanded terminals. These projects tend to take years because they require extensive safety measures. But, just three years before the first match kicked off, the Brazilian government raised a red alert. 10 of the 13 airport projects were behind schedule and over budget. The government sold the operation and revenues of the three completed airports to the private sector, earning more than 10-billion dollars to inject into the other projects. 

In the end, the most critical upgrades were completed, but not particularly well. In São Paulo, the new terminal at Guarulhos International opened one month before kick-off. Across town, though, Viracopos International had to suspend operation of their latest runway due to safety concerns. In Fortaleza, a large city in northeastern Brazil, the new terminal wasn’t completed in time. Instead, passengers exited their aircraft and walked through a large tent where they collected their baggage. Several other expansions weren’t completed until after the final match of the World Cup.

Of course, good travel infrastructure also requires sufficient transportation methods into the city centers. As such, more than 4,300 km of highways were planned, along with new subways and monorails.

Unfortunately, these projects didn’t go any better than the airports. In the city of Cuiaba, known as the “Southern Gate to the Amazon,” a 23-km, 800-million dollar rail line was planned to link the expanded airport to the city’s downtown. In May of 2015, almost a year after the end of the World Cup, less than one km of rail had been built. Monorail systems in Sao Paulo and the Amazonian city of Manaus were canceled entirely. An expanded subway system in Belo Horizonte was also aborted. 

Yet, canceled projects were far from the worst of the problems. In two cities, rushed construction led to shoddy foundations. In Sao Paulo, the monorail system was only canceled after a considerable portion collapsed, killing at least one worker. This came just three days before kick-off. A month earlier, in Belo Horizonte, an unfinished overpass collapsed. Two people were killed, and 22 were injured. Everyone from construction workers and financiers to the country’s president began pointing fingers. For most, it was the fault of the organizing committee, who had imposed strict timelines and done little to ensure workers’ safety. When the games began, only one-third of the 93 promised projects were complete.


Amazonia Arena by evening on February 2014
Amazonia Arena by evening on February 2014 by Brazilian Government is licensed under CC-BY

The World Cup would be held in 12 stadiums across Brazil. Of those stadiums, seven would be brand new, and five would be renovations. Aside from those that have already been mentioned, cities like Natal, Recife, Salvador, and Curitiba would host games. The stadiums ranged in capacity from about 39,000 fans to 76,000.

While stadiums were initially supposed to be funded by private investors, local journalists discovered that vast portions of the new arenas were financed by public banks. Had the stadiums been designed with frugality as a priority, this may not have been a problem. But that wasn’t the case. In most of the stadiums, not one expense was spared. This is because they were built with expensive “green” technology. That may seem like a good thing, but when you consider the resources that went into all of these structures, some of which would be used just a handful of times, sustainability was not a realistic outcome.

Even the renovations were exorbitantly expensive. The most famous example is Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, which was initially built for the 1950 World Cup. We’ve covered Maracaña in-depth in another video, but, to sum it up, renovating the famed stadium cost more than half a billion dollars. It would host many significant events, including the tournament’s final game. Despite briefly falling into disrepair, it is still in use today.

Another drastic “renovation” occurred in Salvador. The Arena Fonte Nova was built from the ashes of its predecessor, which was demolished just before new construction began. Fonte Nova utilized 92% of the materials recovered from demolishing the older stadium. Despite that decision, it cost almost 250 million dollars to build. Many of the so-called renovations, like Fonte Nova, actually required stadiums to be made from scratch.

The most notorious venue for the tournament was the National Stadium in Brasilia. Along with Maracaña, Brasilia’s National Stadium hosted 7 World Cup games, the most of any pitch. Given its location in the capital, the organizing committee wanted something grand, and they got it. 

Construction began in 2010, much later than expected, with a proposed budget of 300 million dollars. Construction moved forward rapidly, though it was briefly delayed when a worker died on the job. The building was completed in 2013, and the result is quite beautiful. The exterior is marked with tall columns and sleek lines, with a flat disk-like roof on top. The gorgeous interior allows fans to sit up close to the action. But, all was not well in Brasilia. 

White Elephants

Despite its’ beautiful structure, the National Stadium in Brasilia became an example of just how bad things can go with World Cup ballparks. First of all, despite its initially moderate estimate of 300-million dollars, the project went drastically over budget. The final result cost 900 million. Now, in some cases, costs like that are justifiable. After all, it was just the third most expensive football stadium worldwide, with Wembley Stadium and Tottenham Hotspur stadium each costing more. But, each of those arenas is filled throughout the year with top-flight English football and concerts. 

Brasilia’s National Stadium could seat more than 70,000 adoring fans, but it hasn’t been full once since the end of the World Cup. That’s because Brasilia’s most competitive football team hasn’t played in the top division since 2000. They compete admirably in the second tier but fail miserably to sell out their arena. Even in their most significant showings of the season, attracting 20,000 fans is a stretch. Keeping the stadium intact costs millions of dollars each year. 

This has earned National Stadium the title of “White Elephant”— a structure that’s expensive to build, expensive to maintain, yet drastically underutilized. The 2014 World Cup is full of White Elephants. According to global finance experts, the most costly stadiums require ten percent of their building cost to maintain each year, meaning that the price for construction doubles every decade.

Yet, the most intriguing White Elephant is, without a doubt, in the city of Manaus. Manaus is, by all accounts, an absolute wonder of a town. But its geographic location also makes it an odd one. Found in the heart of the Amazon, Manaus is 1500 km away from the nearest fellow host city. There are no roads that lead from Rio, Sao Paulo, or Brasilia to Manaus. The only way to get there is to fly or take a ship down one of the region’s many rivers.

This all makes for a beautiful place to host events, but not the most practical. Materials for the arena’s construction had to be shipped in via expensive means. Given its location in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest, hot and humid weather created extreme conditions for builders and footballers alike. Three workers were killed during construction. Locals, though reportedly proud that their oft-forgotten city would briefly hold the gaze of the world’s football fans, eventually saw the stadium as a colossal waste of money. That’s because Manaus received little investment from the federal government in its infrastructure despite being the 7th-largest city in Brazil.

Like all of its counterparts, the Amazon Arena, as it’s called, is beautiful and state-of-the-art. However, since its completion, it rarely housed more than 1,000 fans at a time. 

Of course, there are other white elephants in Brazil. In Cuiaba, the 215-million dollar Pantanal Stadium had to be shut down less than a year after the games to repair some shoddy construction. The stadium’s unused locker rooms became shelters for the area’s homeless population. Even in football-obsessed Brazil, it can be tough to justify building a several-hundred-million-dollar football stadium.


In November of 2008, when a local publication polled the Brazilian public, 80 percent of respondents said they were happy about their nation hosting the World Cup and believed it would benefit their country. By 2014, that number dropped to 48 percent thanks to the many construction delays and lack of public infrastructure development. 

In the months leading up to kick-off, protests began in many of the nation’s largest cities. FIFA representatives insisted that the legacy of hosting would make it all worth it. The Football Federation even committed 20 million dollars to so-called legacy projects. Yet, that laughably small sum becomes much worse when you look at the whole host of controversies that the Brazilian people were protesting.

Hosting the World Cup requires serious accommodations to FIFA by the host country’s government. FIFA reaps most of the profits from the event, in the case of 2014, about 3 billion dollars, despite only putting forward about 2 billion in funding. FIFA doesn’t pay taxes on that income, nor do they pay taxes on spending within the country. Of course, this is all in the name of public benefit. But, often forgotten are those that the World Cup actually hurts.

We’ve already mentioned a handful of deaths during construction, but there were other victims. In Rio De Janeiro, huge neighborhoods of favelas were destroyed to make room for new development. Tenants were rarely compensated for their loss and sometimes were given just a few hours’ notice to pack up their goods and find new housing. 

Where favelas once stood, the government built a parking garage for the nearby football stadium. To make matters worse, most of the populations in the demolished favelas were indigenous peoples who rarely receive any type of recognition or aid from the government. The Americas Program for International Policy estimated that 170,000 people countrywide were displaced.

Brazil’s most legendary footballers, from Pele and Romario to Ronaldo (READ: BRAZILIAN RONALDO NOT CRISTIANO RONALDO), all called out the lack of investment in public infrastructure. Stadiums were built in areas where they had no future use. Dozens of people died, and hundreds of thousands had their lives changed for the worse. But, at least they had the football, right? 

To many fans, the 2014 World Cup had some of the most enjoyable football ever. For Brazil, their team made it to the tournament’s semifinal, where they lost 7-1 to Germany— one of the most embarrassing displays in the event’s history. To Brazilians, the legacy of their World Cup is beyond complicated. To many, it’s entirely negative.

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