Brasilia, Brazil - It imposingly sits like a coliseum rising from heat waves radiating from the flatlands of this arid capital city.
The massive, new Estadio Nacional de Brasilia was inaugurated here last weekend. With a seating capacity at over 71,000 and a cost of more than $700m it is also one of the largest and costliest stadiums ever built in Brazil.
The stadium is the fifth World Cup venue delivered by Brazil, with six more to go. (The Arena Pernambuco, in Recife, was inaugurated on Monday; As of this week, all six FIFA Confederations Cup host city stadiums have been delivered). For the World Cup, Brazil and FIFA ambitiously have planned twelve host cities for the football tournament, which starts in a little over a year from now.
Officials in Brasilia are praising the new stadium now for its size (its diameter is 1km in length), and its ecologically friendly nature.
More than 280 giant pillars encircle the outer rim of the circular super structure and help prop the stadium up, which allows for the natural flow of air that engineers say will comfortably climatise the venue without the need for costly air conditioning. Over 80 percent of the rainwater collected in giant ducts will be treated and re-used.
And thousands of solar panels, which have yet to be installed, will generate energy that will be re-distributed to 2,000 homes. Inside there are 12 locker rooms and more than 50 ramps to funnel crowds in and out.
Claudio Monteiro, Brasilia’s secretary of the World Cup, who is in charge of the construction, told Al Jazeera that the stadium is a one-of-a-kind, zero-emissions, model of sustainability that ranks as one of the world’s great sporting facilities.
“This stadium has the elegance of Wembley Stadium, the size of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, a pitch as sophisticated as the one where Real Madrid plays, and it has the technology of the Dallas Cowboys stadium,” Monteiro said while sitting in a small conference room in an office in the parking lot a day before the inauguration. He was fielding endless calls from FIFA and holding meetings.
FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke, during a visit a week before the stadium was inaugurated, hinted that he would put it on the list of his favorite stadiums in the world.
Delays, costs and criticisms
But the stadium completion came at a steep cost - almost double the initial budget and more expensive than any other of the other 11 World Cup host city stadium projects.
Its opening had been delayed twice, and now it is open just a month before hosting the opening match of the FIFA Confederations Cup.
Things have gone amiss since the stadium's inception years ago.
The cost is totally unjustifiable
Jose Arrudo, the man who spearheaded the initial stadium project as the then-governor of the state of the Federal District, where Brasilia is located, was busted in 2010 in a corruption sting operation by the federal police.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were found stashed in Arruda’s private safes in his official gubernatorial residence. He was convicted and is now serving a prison term for influence peddling. The incident, which made widespread news in Brazil, was not directly linked to the stadium deal, but was a foreshadow of things to come.
Agnelo Queiroz, the current governor from the ruling Workers Party, came into power on a mission to analyse the financial books of the stadium. But he pushed ahead with the costly stadium plans, and the budget continued to balloon.
While stadium officials say the budget is near $700m, some outside observers have speculated the actual cost could reach as high as $900m when it is fully completed.
Estadio Nacional was the only World Cup stadium built solely with state funds, as opposed to federal funding, so the financial books are not subjected to the same level of federal auditing and scrutiny.
"The cost is totally unjustifiable," said Cristovam Buarque, a senator from the federal district. “This stadium is a symbol of a waste of public funds. If we wanted to build a monument in the city we should have built something more useful like 10 new technical schools of the highest quality, and it would have only cost twenty percent of the stadium.”
Critics point to the size of the stadium as a problem of wasteful excess.
Unlike Brazilian football power cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the local football teams in Brasilia that will use Estadio Nacional have meager followings. The club championship last year drew 970 spectators, and the past 57 football matches in the state had a combined attendance of 46,625 - an average of 835 people per game - a fraction of what it would take to even get close to filling the new stadium.
But Brasilia is not alone. Of the 12 World Cup host city stadium projects, only three are expected to be finished at or under initial budget targets.
Brazil’s newsweekly Epoca magazine labeled Estadio Nacional as an “example of how public works in Brazil are delusional, delayed, and absurdly expensive.”
Even with the controversy, the stadium inauguration went ahead last weekend as planned with the public’s first chance to get a peek inside during a local club match.
Critics complain it was overbuilt because the inauguration wasn’t even half full, even though organisers gave away thousands of free tickets.
President Dilma Rousseff got a private tour of the stadium, and used the occasion to hit back at those who have criticised Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup.
"You all remember that a year and a half ago they were saying that we couldn’t build the stadiums, that they would not be ready,” Rousseff stated. “Well we are building and delivering stadiums…even with many pessimists always saying we never had the capability."
Delivered, yes, and from a distance most of the public who were the first to enter the new stadium said it had a jaw dropping “wow” factor.
But a close look at the details reveals it was rushed to open and as organisers did not want to suffer another embarrassing delay. The press box was not ready and journalists had to work from the public seating area, the hand rails in the stands were flimsy and many had bolts that were not properly fitted or had simply broken, and much of the interior paint work was clearly done in a rush.
Up until a day before the inauguration, it was still considered a construction site and hard hats were needed to enter the stadium.
Monteiro, the local stadium chief, forcefully refuted the critics and pointed out that the stadium was intentionally meant to be big and bold and that costs would be offset by expected revenue from dozens of corporate skyboxes, theatres, gyms and international concert tours inside the facility year around.
As for the exploding costs, he makes no apologies. According to Monteiro, the original budget was for a less ambitious stadium, but the costs built up as the project expanded.
"You can buy a Beetle or you can buy a Ferrari," Monteiro said. "They both are cars that will get you where you want to go. But they aren’t the same. We decided to build a monument - a Ferrari - and we’re happy with the results."
Build it and they will come? It’s built. The question now is, will they come?
Buarque, the senator, said not enough will come to justify the cost.
“This stadium is on the path to becoming nothing more than a giant and expensive white elephant,” he said.