Ambassador Optimistic Brazil Can Pull Off World Cup

Interview granted to Taylor Barnes, Special for USA TODAY Sports, and published on May 21, 2014.

Three weeks before the country hosts the World Cup, organizers are still scrambling to put finishing touches on stadiums, and strikes by bus workers and police are causing miles of traffic jams and frustration in the daily lives of locals in Brazil’s largest cities.

More than half a million foreign tourists are expected for the event, on which the government has spent an estimated $11 billion on stadiums and infrastructure.

Public safety is a top concern, and the government says 100,000 law enforcement and security professionals will be working during the tournament. Even as more police carried out partial strikes this week, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Liliana Ayalde spoke optimistically about Brazil’s ability to carry out the event and the United States’ cooperation with the hosts on security. She spoke with USA TODAY Sports about the high number of American fans who will attend, security preparations by both governments, and why soccer is more popular than ever amongst Americans.

Why is there such a large U.S. interest in the World Cup here?

Ayalde: The largest number of ticket holders after Brazilians are Americans. We know that there have been 187,000 tickets sold to Americans, through the FIFA system, and of those we anticipate that there are actually about 80,000 [Americans] because some of them have several tickets. … We are going to deploy teams out to the different cities, the 12 cities, so we’ll have a consular team ready to support Americans that have problems, lost passports, whatever happens.

The traditional thinking is that Americans don’t care about soccer as much as the rest of the world.

Ayalde: I think it’s a myth, and also it’s a different time. I see it with my own family, and daughters that are now engaged in soccer, and just friends, and they are just seized with it. And it’s manageable coming here [to Brazil] as opposed to going across the world. So I think that we have a growing number of soccer fans in the United States and probably it hasn’t been as evident. But we also have ethnic populations in that mix that come traditionally from a soccer-origin country, whether they are Mexican-Americans or Central Americans that are now Americans.

Can you describe the U.S.-Brazilian cooperation in training Brazilian security forces?

Ayalde: Any major event, and Brazil will experience two, the World Cup and the Olympics, provides us with excellent opportunities to share our own experience about managing major events. … We have all these different techniques and practices of our own experience, whether it’s even the Boston Marathon for instance, where things did not turn out right, but I think there are lessons learned there. Or there’s the Super Bowl, even the World Cup (in 1994) that we managed. … In Boston [Brazilian agents] were recently there. They’ve looked at how the marathon was managed and some of the lessons learned as to what happened.

What will the presence of U.S. law enforcement be like in Brazil during the event?

Ayalde: We will have a control center within the Embassy that will be manned by representatives from the different agencies. This is a protocol that is followed in all the major events. It is managed by Washington and that same system, whether it is Sochi or another World Cup, is a setup we will have here as well.

What are the largest U.S. concerns with regards to safety during the World Cup?

Ayalde: Given the numbers that we have we anticipate a lot of consular matters, and that is why we have really focused on deploying highly trained, highly prepared officers in each of the cities, so that they know their way around and they can attend to any citizen that gets involved in something that will require our attention. It can range from minimal security incidents to somebody who gets jailed for some criminal activity. … And of course we have to be attentive to the protests. We anticipate those happening, everyone, the local authorities are as well.

A report in the local press said that members of Brazilian law enforcement received training in North Carolina in April with Academi, the private security contractor formerly known as Blackwater. A spokesman for the U.S. government said that, while the course took place on Academi’s grounds, the trainers were not from the security contractor.

Ayalde: The course was as I understand a maritime interdiction training course. Through our Diplomatic Security Bureau, what we call the ATA program, the Antiterrorism Assistance program, they have a series of training ongoing all the time. It was targeted to increase the capability of the Brazilian police to respond to threats from seaborne attackers. So again it was very specific and these were Brazilian students in a three-week course … It was a regular training program for 22 Brazilian federal police, military police and civil police that were going to be involved in the World Cup. And so that went well.

The International Olympic Committee has made harsh comments of late on Rio de Janeiro’s preparedness for the 2016 Olympics. What is the perspective of the U.S. government?

Ayalde: [Brazilian authorities] have assured us that they are on track and that they are as prepared as possible. But you know this is an event that has its challenges, so we will continue to press and make sure that we have the information and we are always ready to help. We have good communications with all the authorities to make sure that they can reach out to us when they need us. We are doing the best we can and I am sure the Brazilian authorities are doing so as well. … We all want a successful World Cup and Olympics, that’s for sure.