Q&A: Aldo Rebelo, Brazil’s Sports Minister, on Hosting the World Cup and Olympic Games

Critics have suggested that Rio de Janeiro won't be ready to host the 2014 World Cup or the 2016 Olympics. Aldo Rebelo, Brazil's Sports Minister, begs to differ

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Courtesy of Rio 2016

Maracanã Stadium, which is still under construction, will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

London’s Olympic torch has been extinguished, and the world’s attention now turns to Rio de Janeiro — the Brazilian city that will host both the 2016 Olympics, and the 2014 World Cup. Domestic and international media have suggested that Rio won’t be ready for its moment in the sun. But Aldo Rebelo, Brazil’s Sports Minister, isn’t fazed by the negative publicity. “I’m a journalist by trade,” he says. “I understand the basic principle that sometimes bad news is actually good news for the media.” Rebelo recently spoke with TIME about Rio’s progress and the Brazilian values he hopes to convey at the World Cup and Olympics.

Do you see the World Cup as a test event for the Olympics?
They’re quite different and quite distinct. The World Cup is going to be taking place in 12 major capitals around the country. On the other hand the Olympics will just take place in Rio de Janeiro. But some elements of the infrastructure of the World Cup will be put to good use for the Olympics too.

In March Jérôme Valcke, the secretary general of FIFA [soccer’s governing body], said Brazil’s organizers needed “a kick up the backside” and criticized your nation’s preparations. Were his concerns justified?
I think he best explained himself when he apologized. I think he realized it was a mistake to make such a comment.

But he isn’t alone. Subsequently media and government watchdogs have suggested that the renovation and construction of stadiums could delay your preparations.
Both urban and sports-related infrastructure works are on schedule. We’ve planned this well ahead of time and funds were designated for these purposes. I’m confident that things will materialize in due course and in good time.

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Others point out that Rio has some of the world’s worst traffic congestion and lacks sufficient public transport. How are you going to overcome these obstacles?
Rio de Janeiro is a city that has overcome many challenges historically. It managed to deal with two French occupations. When France invaded Portugal, the royal family and thousands of Portuguese aristocrats moved to Rio, and Rio was able to adapt and accommodate these people. We adapt. Also, Rio hosts a major international event — the Carnival — every year, during which Rio receives a much larger number of tourists than it’s going to have to deal with for the World Cup. We’ve just had the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development [Rio+20]. It was a big international conference, and no problems compromised the event.

Rio was once considered the most dangerous city in the western hemisphere. Can foreigners feel safe there?
Rio is without a doubt a lot safer than New York. And possibly a lot more so than many of the major capitals across Europe too.

In what sense?
We don’t suffer the risks of hatred against the nation. We don’t face the problems of ethnic hatred or religious hatred. And we don’t have the risk of vengeance against our country. There’s simply not a feeling of hatred or [desire for] vengeance against our country. What we suffer from is the risk of social imbalance as a society.

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FIFA sets the price of World Cup tickets, but you convinced them to offer concessions to students and pensioners. Why was that important to you?
We have a law in Brazil for sporting-and-cultural events. It says that both students and pensioners are entitled to tickets at half-price. That’s a national law. But we’ve also presented FIFA with two additional challenges [to make tickets available] to indigenous people and low-income families. We’re not going to host a World Cup with activities in the Amazon region without having the presence of the indigenous people. It’s important for us. We also want the lower class to receive tickets as part of a package for low-income families. We want them to be able to take part and enjoy the World Cup too. FIFA has shown an inclination to meet us halfway in achieving those two additional points together with the Brazilian government.

What do you hope the World Cup and Olympics will convey about Rio de Janeiro and Brazil?
I would say that Brazil as a country and Rio as a city are tolerant and culturally very diverse with mixed cultures and mixed ethnicities. We’re completely against racism and have a great unity as a country as a whole. That’s the main image we would like to pass on to the world. We’re not just a society that tolerates racial diversity. We’re a society that actually has this racial diversity ingrained in the people. It’s a very mixed culture.

Is there a hope that the Olympics will leave a legacy for poor Brazilians?
Yes. We’ve been working incredibly hard to make sure these Games bring about a reduction in inequality in the country. The Olympic Games and the World Cup are great opportunities for the country to develop and evolve, and to minimize social inequality.

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And yet reports have emerged of the forced relocation of poor residents in Rio.
There is going to be some relocation of people, homes and families. Obviously it is addressed in a sensible way. People are paid money to be relocated, and they are relocated safely within the country. This is similar to what happened here in London. There are people who had to be relocated as a result of urban works and sporting works. It’s no different from what happened here as part of the London Games.

Is there any other issue the media have brought up that you’d like to redress or clarify?
I think [all the media attention] is part of the civilizing process of our nation. There is historically an element of pessimism and criticism and not believing that things are going to work out. I think it’s part of the process — this pessimism towards activities. It’s something we need to grow out of as a nation. It’s something that comes historically from the Portuguese when they came over [and colonized Brazil]. The flip side of all of that is we also bring courage to the table — that same courage that the Portuguese explorers brought to the country. That daring is something we have as a population, too.

Have you had any interaction with London Mayor Boris Johnson or London 2012 chairman Seb Coe? If so, what advice did they give you?
On the whole we had contact with a vast array of government representatives throughout the whole process of preparing for the London Games. There has been a lot of interaction over the last few years. And we’ve learned many things on the whole with the London Olympics and we’re still learning and picking things up. And this assistance is going to continue. We’ve agreed to a collaboration with the U.K. government where they are going to be sending delegations out to Brazil to help with setting up and preparing for the Games.

Does their assistance include helping you replicate the success of Team GB?
Yes. It’s extremely important. It has to be dual success for Brazil in the Olympics on both fronts. We need to have success in the organization of the Games and our participation in the Games as a team. The Brazilian government have talked to [experts in Britain] to discuss the development and the increased [success] of Team GB.

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