O presente grego – Arena Corinthians at risk of closure after leak

In December 2012, Corinthians were crowned world champions after defeating Rafa Benitez’s Chelsea in Yokohama. A few months later, British accountancy firm Deloitte released their annual Football Money League report which ranked the São Paulo side as the 24th highest earning football club on the planet – the loftiest position ever reached by a South American club. As if that was not enough, Corinthians were about to move into their brand new stadium – the Arena Corinthians – which was handpicked to stage the opening match of the 2014 World Cup. It appeared nothing could stand in their way.

However, a few short years later and things have turned upside down at Corinthians. On the pitch, they are likely to miss out on Copa Libertadores qualification for next year, even with two extra places for Brazilian clubs in 2017. They are lightyears away from being the 24th richest club in the world and are struggling under the weight of a chronic cash flow problem. As if that was not enough, the Arena Corinthians may be about to be closed after the discovery of a massive water leak that has turned the stadium’s car park into a serious landslide risk.

Last week, Brazil’s largest newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported that over 20 million litres of water leaked underneath the Arena Corinthians car park over the space of five months at the beginning of 2015. Meanwhile, the city of São Paulo was enduring its worst water crisis in recent history, which left countless homes in neighbourhoods surrounding the stadium without running water, in some cases for months on end.

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While the leak itself has long been remedied, according to specialists the massive quantities of water received by the soil puts the car park at serious risk of landslides. Were such a landslip to happen, it would surely reach the neighbouring Radial Leste (pictured above), one of the busiest roadways in the city of São Paulo, potentially causing tragic consequences.

Corinthians and Odebrecht, the construction firm responsible for building the stadium, guarantee the stadium’s safety, but São Paulo public prosecutor’s office are not convinced and will carry out their own inspection and could demand the closure of Arena Corinthians until further notice.

The risk of a landslide is not without precedent at the Arena Corinthians, as in February of this year a slope adjacent to the stadium car park eroded causing mud and earth to slip to the pavement of the aforementioned Radial Leste. The club and Odebrecht maintain the landslide was caused by torrential rain and had no connection with the 20 million litres of water underneath the car park.

The problems are not limited to the vicinity of the stadium either, with the three metre porcelain panels on the Arena’s roof falling onto the terraces on more than one occasion during high winds, while the roof of the stadium’s VIP entrance collapsed in February. All of these instances occurred outside of match days and no-one was injured.

I wrote about Corinthians’ financial woes back in January 2015, explaining that their massive deficit was largely due to the cost of their new stadium. For the last two years, all of Corinthians’ gate receipts (usually an important source of revenue for one of the country’s most popular clubs) have gone towards paying for the Arena, an arrangement that doesn’t look like ending any time soon.

The saving grace of Corinthians’ humungous stadium debt was to be the negotiation of the Arena’s naming rights, a deal which was intended to be completed by 2012 but has stalled ever since. It is believed that the constant problems with the stadium, as well as the significant involvement of Odebrecht in Operation Car Wash (a massive federal police investigation into corruption at national oil company Petrobras) and political squabbles within Corinthians have scared away any potential sponsors. The Arena Corinthians, even after fulfilling the dreams of millions of corintianos who clamoured for a stadium to call their own, now appears to be more trouble than it’s worth.

In Brazil, the Arena Corinthians is already being referred to as a presente grego, or “Greek gift”, a reference to the fabled wooden horse of Troy. The stadium looks good on the outside, but it now appears to be full of bloodthirsty Greek soldiers.

Their stunted income, alongside some unwise business in the transfer market, left Corinthians with precious little to spend on the team itself in the last few years. In an attempt to balance the books, their best players are sold off year after year, dramatically affecting their results on the pitch. Away to São Paulo on Saturday, only three of Corinthians’ starting 11 were present in the corresponding fixture in 2015. To make matters worse, they were humbled by one of their fiercest rivals, losing by four goals to nil.

This fiasco raises the question of how a brand-new football stadium could have so many structural problems. In this case, one must point the finger at those responsible for its construction, namely Odebrecht.

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In 2003, a consortium led by Odebrecht began construction on the Estádio Olímpico João Havelange in Rio de Janeiro. The stadium, commonly known as the Engenhão, was intended to host the 2007 Pan-American Games and building cost an estimated R$380 million (approximately £100 million, using exchange rates from 2007). In early 2013, less than six years after its inauguration, the Engenhão was closed due to structural problems on the stadium’s roof. It was only reopened in February 2015.

During the closure, the consortium that administered the refurbished Maracanã (also headed by Odebrecht) entered into negotiations with the city’s principal football clubs for the right to host games at the stadium, which was formerly run by the city of Rio de Janeiro. Odebrecht (who signed the recommendation to close the Engenhão) were able to force Flamengo and Fluminense into a corner, as both clubs feared losing out on gate receipts and had no plan B thanks to the Engenhão’s closure. A fortuitous coincidence for Latin America’s largest construction firm.

As part of the ongoing Operation Car Wash investigation, Odebrecht has been accused of forming part of a cartel of construction firms that rigged bidding procedures on major Petrobras contracts. The system was allegedly backed up by bribes to politicians and officials from the national oil company. Investigators claim that Odebrecht even had a separate department dedicated solely to managing these aforementioned bribes.

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In March, former CEO Marcelo Odebrecht (above) was sentenced to 19 years and 4 months in prison for corruption, money laundering and criminal association. In leaked audios with Sérgio Machado, former president of Petrobras’s transportation subsidiary Transpetro, ex-Brazilian president José Sarney claimed that Odebrecht’s inevitable plea bargain testimony would be like a “machine gun” to the country’s political class.

Judging on past performance, it would appear that Odebrecht cut several corners in the construction of Arena Corinthians. In November 2013, before the inauguration of the stadium, one of the cranes used to complete the roof of the Arena fell, killing two labourers. Four Odebrecht engineers were charged with negligence.

It is also worth remembering that Odebrecht are responsible for the construction of several other football stadiums in Brazil, including the Maracanã, the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, and the Arena Pernambuco in Recife.

Journalist Juca Kfouri, who broke the story of the water leak under the stadium car park, heard from one of those responsible for the construction of Arena Corinthians that a landslide in that area could be a “new Mariana” – a reference to the dam disaster of last November which killed 19 people in Minas Gerais. Clearly the situations are very different, but as Kfouri himself notes, far more than 19 people use the Radial Leste at any given time.

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