SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil's rush to complete work on World Cup stadiums has been especially stressful for wheelchair-bound fans, who fear they will struggle with still-unfinished ramps, bleachers and sidewalks.
But a rehearsal game on Sunday in Sao Paulo was a pleasant surprise, disabled fans said, especially in a country where infrastructure is often deficient even for those with no impediments. They credited the army of support staff that may hold the key to Brazil's broader chances for a glitch-free tournament beginning on June 12.
Congresswoman Mara Gabrilli, a quadriplegic and an international activist on disability issues, attended Sunday’s “test match” between two local club teams after receiving complaints about accessibility in many of Brazil’s 12 host cities.
It took Gabrilli two hours, three subway trains, nine elevators and a wheelchair-accessible van provided by the city government to get from central Sao Paulo to Arena Corinthians, some 12 miles (20 km) to the east.
Once she arrived, though, she was impressed. Hundreds of police, stadium staff and volunteers were on hand to provide directions, push wheelchairs over cracks and otherwise help atone for incomplete construction.
“It’s very organized,” said Gabrilli, a member of Brazil’s main opposition party. “So many people here to help! I’m surprised.”
Brazil’s World Cup preparations have been plagued by construction delays and canceled plans for trains and other public transportation projects. Fans are likely to face severe traffic and other bottlenecks.
FIFA, soccer's governing body, has said that at least 1 percent of the Cup's 3 million tickets would be available to disabled fans. Its media office did not respond to a request for an updated number.
FIFA and local laws mandate that stadiums be wheelchair-accessible. But in Brazil, as in many developing countries, disabled fans will face accessibility challenges at hotels, restaurants and other facilities.
Disabled fans' concerns were magnified last week after Rio de Janeiro’s municipal tourism secretary, Antonio Pedro Figueira de Mello, said in a radio interview that organizers “haven’t given all the necessary attention” to disabled fans.
“Those people don’t tend to come to World Cups that much (anyway),” he added. His office later apologized, saying he misspoke.
At an April 30 game in Natal, a host city in Brazil’s northeast, radio reporter Edeilson Felix said that while accessibility at the stadium was “top-notch," he struggled to get inside because the area remains a construction site.
Felix said a colleague had to maneuver his wheelchair through puddles and over curbs. “It was a lot harder than it should have been,” he said.
Brazil’s plan for dealing with this issue, and many others, seems to be: Throw people at it.
That’s a time-honored strategy in a country where logistics and planning often fall short but where labor is relatively cheap and people are famously friendly and helpful.
It seemed to work Sunday.
Reuters spoke to 11 fans in wheelchairs. They, and many others, expressed satisfaction, even though some areas of Arena Corinthians are still missing chairs or are blocked off by partitions.
As the game ended, 12 city vans waited to take Gabrilli and other wheelchair-bound fans back to the train stop. Similar vans will be running during the tournament.
Gabrilli said Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest and wealthiest city, has “by far” the best wheelchair infrastructure – so events in other cities might not run as smoothly.
“We’ll be watching closely for any problems,” she said on Sunday. “But today was a good sign."
Additional reporting by Paulo Prada in Natal, Brazil; Editing by Douglas Royalty