Ricardo Trade arrived in London eager to sell the city on next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
As head of the local organizing committee, he wanted to talk about the gleaming new stadiums, the 12 host cities and the warm welcome awaiting thousands of soccer fans. He even brought along Brazilian soccer great Ronaldo to offer some star power.
But instead talking soccer, Trade ended up fending off questions about security, as news broke that a major soccer convention has been cancelled in Rio de Janeiro because of civil unrest.
Soccerex, which brings together more the 4,000 delegates, including high-profile figures such as England manager Roy Hodgson, was slated to start in three weeks at Macarana Stadium, but it was abruptly cancelled Tuesday.
“With the ongoing civil unrest, the Rio de Janeiro state secretary of sport took the political decision to withdraw their support from the Soccerex Global Convention,” chief executive Duncan Revie said.
State government officials denied security was an issue, saying in a statement convention organizers had failed to secure private funding for the event “so that the state would not have to use public money.”
Whatever the case, the cancellation renewed concerns about safety in Brazil, which was hit by violent protests during last June’s Confederations Cup tournament in Rio. There have also been questions about whether all of the stadiums will be ready for the 32-team World Cup tournament, which runs from June 12 to July 13, 2014.
On Tuesday, during a testy press conference, Trade and FIFA marketing director Thierry Weil played down the convention cancellation and the security worries.
“It’s not a problem for us,” Trade said. “The federal government gave a guarantee to FIFA [soccer’s world governing body] to guarantee security around the stadiums.”
Referring to protesters who have been demonstrating largely about the $3-billion (U.S.) cost of playing host to the World Cup, Trade said: “They are not protesting against the fans.”
Weill called the cancellation of Soccerex unfortunate, but said it will have no impact on World Cup organizing. He also cited surveys that show a large majority of Brazilians support the event.
“What happened at the Confederations Cup was a surprise to all of us,” he told reporters. “But it was managed.” He added FIFA received six million requests for tickets for the World Cup, roughly six times more than are available.
“The fans that bought these tickets, they knew what happened at the Confederations Cup. They trust the organizers.”
When pressed about recent violence in Rio, he snapped at a reporter: “You have six million requests for tickets, so are you saying the world is afraid?”
Ronaldo, who is a volunteer member of the organizing committee, tried to offer some perspective, indicating Brazilians have genuine grievances with the government but the World Cup will bring benefits, such as badly needed investments.
“People are tired of being mistreated,” he told reporters through an interpreter. “It’s a moment of change. People are demanding change. … Brazilians are tired of having been ignored for many years by the government.”
However, he said, he “continues to believe in the World Cup.”
Trade, a former world-class handball player who was also involved in Brazil’s successful bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, also faced tough questions about price gouging and fears by many fans around the world that the cost of hotels and travel has soared.
He said the government has set up a commission to monitor prices and the organizing committee is working on plans to help fans find reasonable accommodation. The government is also looking into transportation issues, such as running flights between some cities which normally don’t have direct flights.
When asked what he would tell fans who might be worried about safety and the cost, Trade said: “I assure them that we have a good country for them to visit and be with their families and say, ‘Hey, that’s a good country. They play football, they celebrate well, they organize well, and they are beautiful, they have nice beaches and I’ll return here with my family in the future.’
“That’s our hope.”