‘Beautiful Game’ becomes ‘Pricey Game’ with World Cup, Confed Cup changing Brazilian soccer (Washington Post/AP)

By Associated Press, Published: May 28

RIO DE JANEIRO — It’s an image as Brazilian as Carnival or Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue.

Drummers pound out a Samba rhythm. Swaying to the beat, fans sing and saunter up and down the aisles waving flags the size of bedsheets, seeming oblivious to the match below.

Little by little this picturesque mayhem in Brazilian soccer stadiums is disappearing, and ticket prices are soaring despite the toned-down version being sold.

The “Beautiful Game” has become the “Pricey Game.”

This year’s Confederations Cup and next year’s World Cup, the first in this South American country in 64 years, are speeding the changes. The national game is getting a different look with the use of numbered seating, a transformation that’s been going on for several years.

This might seem like a small thing, but it’s big in Brazil.

For decades, Brazilians simply raced into the stadiums and grabbed the best spots — some sitting, others standing in a crush amid thousands of others. At the Confederations Cup and World Cup, the seats will be assigned, and they won’t come cheaply. As an example, the least expensive seats for Sunday’s exhibition game between Brazil and England — the first major test event at Rio de Janeiro’s renovated Maracana Stadium — will be 90 reals ($45).

That’s 30 times more than the cheapest seat eight years ago at the historic stadium.

The Brazil-England match comes only days before the opening of the Confederations Cup, the eight-team warmup for the World Cup that starts on June 15. Maracana is the venue for the title game June 30 — and the World Cup final.

“The giant price change means there is a shift concerning the kind of people that are going to the new stadiums,” said Erick Omena de Melo, a native of Rio de Janeiro who is working on a doctorate in city planning at Oxford University in England. “It was previously a much more diverse place in the stadiums. But as the economy in Brazil changes, they are converting these stadiums to a much more middle-class, upper-middle class or even upper-class place that is much less for the lower-middle class and poor.”

Traditional general admission is being eliminated with luxury boxes and modern seating taking over at the six stadiums being used for the Confederations Cup, and the additional six that are to be ready for the World Cup. This change has already filtered down to the country’s heavily indebted club teams and is sure to take some of the spontaneity out of what Brazilians call “futebol” (pronounced foo-chee-BOHL).

Brazilian fans used to play a major role in the drama. These days they’re staying away. Average attendance for matches in Major League Soccer in the United States is higher than attendance for first-division matches in Brazil, which likes to call itself the “Home of Football.”

“What’s being done so far is transferring a European model to Brazil,” said Omena de Melo, who is working on a book about the social history of Maracana. “But Brazil is really different. It’s a totally different atmosphere at a football game. The changes are seen by many as a huge aggression against the traditional fans, the traditional crowds at football matches.”

Officials counter that ticket prices in Brazil are still below European levels, and that new and refurbished stadiums will improve safety that is needed in a country where soccer-related crime and violence is common. In addition, Brazil would never have been awarded the World Cup — and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — without a pledge to upgrade crumbling stadiums and tighten security.

The South American country is spending an estimated $3.5 billion on new stadiums and refurbishments, though most of the project has run behind schedule. The need to work 24-7 to finish the venues will run up the costs by millions more. FIFA has complained openly about the delays, acknowledging the Confederations Cup will be a maze of unfinished work.

FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke has admitted that “not all operational arrangements will be 100 percent,” then warned “this will be impossible to repeat for the FIFA World Cup.”

The new national stadium in Brasilia opened at a cost of more than $590 million, the most expensive of the 12 World Cup venues. But it has no local team to call it home, and many say it’s a “white elephant.”

It will host the opening of the Confederations Cup on June 15 with Brazil facing Japan.

Another stadium is going up in Manaus in the northern state of Amazonas — again with no local team. It’s the same in the southwestern city of Cuiaba, also without a team in Brazil’s top league.

Brazilian Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo — a Brazilian Communist Party member — defends the stadiums as “centers for sports and nonsports events,” and suggested they would be good places for businesses to hold conventions, shows and fairs.

Omena de Melo countered that the “gentrification” eliminates the diversity.

“Football in Brazil has been a kind of antenna that captures all the different values in Brazilian culture and correlates them into one,” Omena de Melo said. “This sort of informality has existed for a century in these stadiums.”

He used the example of Maracana to show how prices have soared.

The stadium has been closed twice for refurbishment since in the last decade. When it was closed in 2005 to be redone for the 2007 Pan American Games, Omena de Melo’s research showed the cheapest ticket was about $1.50.

In 2010, when it was closed again to be refurbished for next year’s World Cup, the cheapest ticket was about $20.

The Maracana was opened again a few weeks ago. Its capacity has been reduced to just under 79,000 — it held more than 170,000 for the final match of the 1950 World Cup — and plans call for it to be eventually shared by Brazilian clubs Flamengo and Fluminense.

In a country where the official minimum monthly salary is $339, the cheapest ticket for the Brazil-England match will be about $45 — 30 times the price of the cheapest ticket only eight years ago and out of reach for most Cariocas, the term for residents of Rio.

Rio de Janeiro sports journalist Telmo Zanini defended the rising prices and said adjusting to the seating changes will be easy in Rio and Sao Paulo in the prosperous southeast, but more difficult in provincial cities.

He cited a recent case in the city of Belo Horizonte “where people took seats and didn’t want to give them up when the ticketholders arrived. So police or stewards had to be called in.”

He said ticket prices had been rising for a long time, and declined to blame the World Cup. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are two of the world’s most expensive cities. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tomatoes recently sold for $6.50 at some Rio de Janeiro supermarkets, where a standard can of shaving cream costs $12. Shaving gel goes for $15.

“Poor people also can’t buy tickets in England or the United States,” Zanini said. “It’s a question of the market. You don’t see poor people buying tickets for Los Angeles Lakers games. The World Cup is not the only reason. Ticket prices have been going up for a long time. But with the World Cup stadiums we will have better quality stadiums. Some people have not gone to games previously because they did not feel safe.”

Marcello Campos, a 29-year-old fan of Rio club Flamengo who goes to at least one match a week, called the changes “a little difficult.”

“It’s going to be a challenge for the people who are used to the low prices; people who don’t have money to buy a ticket for 80 reals ($40) or 100 reals ($50). It’s expensive now.”

He said getting people to stay in numbered seats would be even tougher.

“It’s impossible for me to watch a football game sitting,” Campos said. “I’m too nervous to be sitting. I’ll need to fix that in my mind, to concentrate on sitting.”

He said the changes would be beneficial, imposing organization on chaos.

“We need to change the culture. It kind of gives everyone equal rights, not just those who show up first.”

Benefiting from many of the changes is a multinational consortium that won a contract in May from the state of Rio de Janeiro to run Maracana for 35 years. The consortium is made up of Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht, Los Angeles-based Sports and entertainment company AEG, and the sport and entertainment company IMX, which is owned by Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista.

Critics say the deal gives the Rio de Janeiro state government less money than it invested in the venue and will lead to the demolition of an indigenous museum, a public school and some athletics facilities in the area. A public prosecutor estimated that $615 million in public money has been spent on Maracana since 2005, raising questions why a private consortium should reap most of the profits from taxpayer money.

The Brazilian soccer great Pele has come out against the privatization, saying the famous stadium “must be of the people, for the Brazilian people.” Others have also questioned selling off what has been traditionally a public space to private interests.

Omena de Melo cautioned that the new stadiums will not eliminate soccer-related violence.

“Violence tied to football could still be there, even after the gentrification,” he said. “If people can’t get inside the stadiums, they are going to get violent outside. You can’t isolate the stadium from the society where it exists. Brazilian society has a lot of problems caused by inequality, and violence is one of them.”