Pedestrians tiptoe across a road scarred with deep puddles, piles of gravel and a detour sign. Black oily slush leaves no room for missteps or steering mistakes.
The debris in this small city in western Brazil is part of the grand-scale mess of unfulfilled promises. Unfinished infrastructure projects were supposed to create a new metropolis, with modern roads and a light-rail system to whiz passengers to the city center from a gleaming 21st century airport in time for this year's World Cup. From the look of things, they won't be done in Cuiaba — or in the country's other 11 host cities, where many construction plans are hopelessly behind schedule, or have been canceled.
"This work here that's right by the stadium, I think they'll get it finished," said Atilio Martinelli, who runs a locksmith business near the building site. "It'll be done poorly and at the last minute, but they'll at least finish it. But there is no way they'll finish most of the other projects. It's going to be a great humiliation for us."
There was a time when South America's biggest country seemed like the perfect place for soccer's showcase event. It is the game's lone superpower and the home of Pelé, its most famous brand. Instead, the country is a logistical mess and bracing for potentially violent anti-government protests like the ones that surrounded a World Cup warm-up tournament last year.
After Brazil was awarded the cup in 2007, politicians promised $8 billion would be spent on 56 airports, subway lines and other projects nationwide, in addition to $3.5 billion for construction or renovation of 12 stadiums for the tournament. Nine of the stadiums are finished, but just seven of the infrastructure projects have been completed with the competition three months away.
— In Belo Horizonte, a planned subway system was scrapped and replaced with bus lines. A new international air terminal was also cancelled.
— In Salvador, another promised subway system was turned over to a private company and work is now scheduled to start after the tournament.
— A new runway was proposed for the World Cup at Rio de Janeiro's main airport. It is unclear now if it will even be built in time for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
— A monorail system officials promised would revolutionize transportation in the Amazon jungle city of Manaus was hastily nixed late last year after government regulators found it wasn't a viable project.
Bemoaning the infrastructure problems became as much a national pastime as soccer.
"They started late and have boxed themselves in. Now they have to redouble efforts to finish stadiums, so much of the good stuff gets left behind," said Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., in an interview with The Associated Press. What was important gets pushed off, and what's urgent gets done," Matheson added.
The World Cup was to have served as a stepping-out party announcing Brazil's arrival on the global stage.
"The world is going to see a modern and innovative nation," former Sports Minister Orlando Silva wrote in a 2011 editorial in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, just months before he was forced from office amid accusations he took kickbacks. "We're working to organize the best Cup in history ... The country can count on it."
Instead the construction delays have become an embarrassment for many, stoking public anger over poor public services, the high cost of living and corruption scandals. Many Brazilians now say that even if their beloved soccer team wins the World Cup on July 13, the country will have already lost.
Professor Paulo Resende of Fundacao Dom Cabral, a well-known Latin American business school, said Brazil is far removed from its "euphoria phase" when it was picked as host seven years ago.
"Now we face the last stage, which is to deliver the minimum necessary to have a nice event," Resende said. "The big dream of urban mobility and airport legacy for the future of Brazil is now reduced to the basics — to maintain the country's image."
Brazil isn't alone among nations whose preparations for the Cup came under fire.
South Africa, the last host, had serious security problems and delivered many works related to the tournament at the last moment. But Brazil is in worse shape, with FIFA President Sepp Blatter saying earlier this year that the country was further behind than any host he had dealt with during his four decades at the world governing body, despite having more time to prepare.
The crown jewel in Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso state, was supposed to be a $670 million, 13-mile light-rail system to link the airport to downtown.
Construction for the project is lacerating the city of 600,000, but residents say little is getting done.
Red-mud trenches have been gouged where rails are supposed to go, and several concrete overpasses litter the city, loose links that now only block traffic. A maximum of a half-mile of track has been put down.
Mauricio Guimaraes, who heads the World Cup projects for the Mato Grosso state government, told The Associated Press recently that the rail system was never meant to be linked to the World Cup, though it was the first in Brazil to take advantage of a special financing program set up specifically for the tournament and the Olympics. He guaranteed that the system would be "100-percent finished" by the end of 2014. "Tracks will be going down quickly," he added.
Many doubt those assurances, and fear that momentum will fade altogether once the World Cup is over.
"They (state officials) lied when they promised to finish the light-rail system before the World Cup, even though any serious engineer could see there wasn't enough time," said Bruno Boaventura, a lawyer who heads an anti-corruption organization called Moral. "They lied about the real cost of the system, which has increased and I think will get even worse. Now, they've started to lie about getting 100 percent of the lines done by December."
Others wonder why the mega-project was started in the first place in this rural outpost 150 miles from the Bolivian border. Cuiaba is the capital of Mato Grosso state, famous as the home to 29 million head of cattle — 10 times the human population.
"It always seemed obvious to me that the schedule could not be met as promised," state prosecutor Clovis Almeida Junior said. "And the main reason is the lack of planning, in all aspects. The result is today's situation, which many say qualifies as a mess. But I think we could use stronger words to describe it."
Another bleeding wound is known locally as "The Big Ditch," a project to reroute one of Cuiaba's three main traffic arteries. The half-mile trench passes within a few hundred meters (yards) of the new stadium, and will hinder traffic getting to the stadium — not help it. Small business owners in the area say they were told two years ago when work began that it would be done in a few months. They say they have lost money since then, and now can't get a straight answer as to when the work will be finished.
An airport expansion set to greet fans was plagued by a late start and red-tape, and residents fear it too will not be ready for the throngs who will soon descend for matches, including a June 13 matchup between Chile and Australia.
Single-lane detours stretch for several miles to reach the tiny terminal. Passengers exit into a cloud of dust stirred up by backhoes. Taxis wheel through a bumpy maze of plastic traffic cones, intended to save pedestrians. A giant galvanized metal shed encloses part of the new terminal, mostly girders and beams.
"I am embarrassed to take you here," a cab driver said, calling himself Joao. "Mess, mess, mess. What else can I say?"
Matheson, the sports economist, put some of the blame on FIFA and the International Olympic Committee for the skewed priorities, soaring costs and missed opportunities associated with Brazil's preparations.
Brazil is officially spending just over $11 billion on the World Cup, though some think the number is much higher. An additional $15 billion is being spent on the Olympics, to be held in Rio in 2016.
FIFA, soccer's world governing body, is chipping in $1 billion of its own money for the World Cup, which generates more than 90 percent of FIFA's $5 billion income over a four-year cycle.
"The IOC and FIFA want the newest, fanciest, most spectacular facilities for every event," Matheson said. "All the risks are put on the host country or city, but all the revenues are going to the IOC or FIFA."
Eighty percent of the $3.5 billion earmarked for the 12 stadiums is public money, although former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva promised years ago no public money would be used.
At least four of the venues are likely to be "white elephants" in cities without top-division soccer clubs. Cuiaba is a case in point. The city has two teams, each of which draws about 500 fans per match at the dirty-orange Presidente Eurico Gaspar Dutra stadium. The new stadium will seat 42,000 for the World Cup, and 45,000 afterward when FIFA media seats and sponsors areas are removed.
Brazil's former national team coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has been scathing, calling World Cup preparations "a joke."
"We missed an opportunity to show the world what we can do in this country," said Parreira, who led Brazil to the World Cup title in 1994 and is an assistant this year to coach Felipe Scolari. "We know the World Cup is about stadiums, but it's not only about stadiums. Fans can't live in a stadium."
In Cuiaba's sweltering heat, 46-year-old maid Evone Pereira Barbosa stands outside a drab-green concrete health clinic called the Policlinica do Verdao, just a few hundred meters (yards) from the new stadium. Thirty people are in a waiting room inside but, with no more seats, she leans against a wall outside.
The downtrodden clinic is typical of many in Brazil, where a woeful public health system is hobbled with crumbling infrastructure and a chronic shortage of doctors, especially in poorer areas. This is part of the reason the government spending billions on the World Cup fuels protesters' rage. At rallies, demonstrators routinely demand "FIFA standard" hospitals, a reference to the high-quality new stadiums. At rallies, demonstrators routinely demand "FIFA standard" hospitals, a reference to the high-quality new stadiums.
Barbosa guesses that half the people in Cuiaba are against Brazil hosting the World Cup — and a new poll backs that sentiment. The respected Datafolha polling group said in February that 52 percent of respondents across Brazil favor holding the event. That's down from 79 percent in 2008. When Brazil was awarded the Cup, few could have imagined such rejection coming from the spiritual home of the world's most popular sport.
Since the protests last June, officials like Guimaraes have worked hard to distance most spending on infrastructure from the World Cup. He argues that if Cuiaba had not spent the money on building a rail line or a new stadium, the funds "would not have gone to health and security." It's cash that comes from different budgets, he said.
But the fine points of budgetary policies are hollow arguments for most in Brazil, where a centuries-old gap between a small elite and poor majority persists. There is widespread, palatable anger toward the government and business leaders over the perception they misspent billions on stadiums that won't benefit people after soccer's big event, or public works projects that may never be finished.
"Ordinary people have been forgotten," Barbosa said. "They invested a lot in the World Cup and forgot the people."