CUIABA, Brazil – This blazing-hot city of half a million people on Brazil’s western plains – where it’s not uncommon for temperatures reach 35 degrees by 8am – is one of the 12 World Cup host cities.
I’ve been here more than a half dozen times over the years.
With about seven months to go until the World Cup, I’ve come back again, spending the past five days searching for any signs the city is ready to host footballs biggest event.
I am still looking.
The minute you land at Marechal Rondon airport you’re greeted by construction. The good news: the airport is undergoing an expansion to triple its capacity.
The bad news: the work is less than 50 percent complete.
The airport is ripped to shreds the new car park is still dirt, and the new terminal has a structural framing but not much else.
I’m sure it will be beautiful when it’s done – in March, builders insist.
Right now it resembles more of a rural, roadside bus stop still under construction, and a dusty one at that.
When I ask a woman what she thinks of it all, her response was one word: “Bagunça”, meaning confusion and disorder.
After you manoeuvre your way out of the airport, it gets worse.
The main road leading into the city is ripped up and being expanded for the World Cup.
A poorly marked detour of cones that have been smashed by cars leads motorists through a gravel side road that snakes through a pothole-filled residential district.
Without a GPS, you are lost.
Streets torn up
An all-you-can-eat restaurant next to the airport has boarded up and has a sign out the front which says: “We’re closed. Will re-open when the road is open again.”
Nobody knows exactly when that might be.
Many other main avenues and side streets in the city are also torn up and impassable as they build a light rail line through the city, one of the benchmark city projects of the World Cup.
On the day I arrived, the first new light rail cars arrived from Spain.
With much fanfare they were driven on a flatbed truck to the maintenance area, where I was told they would be loaded on tracks and switched on for a test.
It was trumpeted as a sign of progress.The only problem was, the tracks weren’t ready.
They are planning for more than 20 kilometres of track to be built. So far as I could tell, only about 40 metres has been completed.
The governor says he expects it to be ready for the World Cup. Based on what I saw, two words come to mind: Good. Luck.
I got a sneak peak inside the Arena Pantanal, the $350m 41,000-seat stadium. The builders say it’s 85 percent completed, but I toured it inside and out and I saw no pitch, no roof, no car park and no seats.
FIFA has a non-negotiable deadline that the stadiums must be delivered by December 31.
As I walked on the dirt pitch with Mauricio Guimaraes, Cuiaba’s chief in charge of World Cup preparations, I asked him: “Seems like you don’t have a day to spare.”
“No, we don’t have a minute to spare,” he shot back.
Will Arena Pantanal be ready for the World Cup? Probably, but it depends how you define “ready”, and under whose deadline.
As we left the stadium, on the outside of the construction site there was a sign that perfectly captured the conflicted mood of many Brazilians.
“Here another construction project of the World Cup,” the sign read. Spray-painted next to it these words: “I want education,” in reference to the demands of the anti-World Cup protests that swept over Brazil in June.
Not to be deterred, we pushed on and stopped at a small plaza in the centre of the city where a Coca-Cola sponsored World Cup clock was erected.
But the clock was broken, and the part that was supposed to show the countdown to the days until the World Cup was blank. Perhaps an ominous sign.
We then went to film one of the major road construction projects. But it started pouring sheets of heavy rain.
As if this city didn’t have enough problems, this part of Brazil is about to begin the rainy months.
When the rain starts to pour, construction zones turn into a flooded and muddy mess and work grinds to a halt. I saw it first hand. Tractors sat idle. A dozen workers huddled under trees to stay dry.
We finished our day by driving out to the suburb city of Varzea Grande. We poked around for the neighborhood of Barra do Pari. There, in some remote marshlands isolated from everything we found a sign on the side of the road that read, “Official Training Centre, World Cup, FIFA 2014.”
Unescorted and unannounced, we drove in to take a look. There wasn’t much to see.
This is supposed to be an official training site for football teams next year, but it looked less than 20 percent complete.
A man told me they had more than 100 people working on it. I stayed about 45 minutes and I counted about 25.
Nobody seemed to be doing too much work, as it was approaching 5pm and they were starting to pack up to call it a day once the clock hit 6.
There seemed little or no urgency.
On the way out, I asked a builder if he thought it would be ready for the World Cup.
“Who knows?” he said. “But that is our hope. But, really, only God knows.”
Based on what I saw the past few days, prayers might be all this city has left to make it in time.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel