By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - When Brazil won the right to host the 2014 World Cup, officials vowed it would be the best and most transparent tournament ever and that hardly a cent of taxpayer money would be spent on stadiums and infrastructure.
Today, with the opening match less than two years away, those claims look shaky.
Organizers have set up websites where the public can monitor construction work and cash outlays, an exercise in transparency that officials say is new in Brazil.
But critics say the information is often contradictory or out of date. The cost of stadiums and public transport projects has spiraled and authorities have yet to disclose the budget for key areas such as telecommunications and policing.
Officials boasted that tracking spending would be "so easy that any citizen could sit on his sofa and see where the money was being spent," said Gil Castello Branco, the secretary general of Contas Abertas, a non-profit group that monitors public expenditures.
"But it doesn't matter if you're on the sofa, in the kitchen, or at the office, no one knows how much this is costing," he added.
Cost overruns are not unusual for nations preparing to host events like the World Cup and Olympics. But some say that issues of transparency and accountability are particularly worrying in Brazil, which has a long history of corruption and poor planning.
"The World Cup reflects the state of the country where it happens," said Christopher Gaffney, an American professor of architecture and urban planning who lives in Rio and is studying Brazil's preparations for the big events. "And the Brazilian government doesn't have a strong record of transparency."
Brazil is also hosting the next Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The cost of stadiums and transport infrastructure for the World Cup is officially put at 27.1 billion reais ($13.3 billion), almost half of which will go to public transport. Most of the rest will be split almost evenly between stadiums and airports, which are in desperate need of an upgrade.
The majority of the cash is coming from public coffers, with three different websites monitoring construction and spending. One is run by the sports ministry, another by the Senate and a third by the Office of the Comptroller General, or CGU. The TCU, a government agency that audits public spending, also issues periodic reports.
The problem, critics say, is that the sites are unreliable.
"The information we get is incomplete, contradictory and late," said Castello Branco. "And frequently misleading."
'COMMUNICATION COULD BE BETTER'
The data for stadiums, for example, is different on the three sites. The sports ministry says the Amazônia Arena in Manaus will cost 532.2 million reais; the CGU site says it will cost 515 million reais; the Senate site says 505 million reais.
The Senate site says Rio's Maracanã stadium will eventually hold 79,378 people; the sports ministry put the number at around 79,000; the CGU gives no number at all.
In others, the information appears deliberately opaque.
The sports ministry site says the Itaquera stadium in Sao Paulo will have 65,000 seats and cost 820 million reais. That price tag, however, is for a stadium of 48,000 seats.
An additional 20,000 seats will be added for the tournament and then removed. The Sao Paulo state government is paying for the seats to be installed and removed, but more than a year after the contract was signed it has yet to say how much that will cost.
The state government said it was "studying several ways to resolve the issue" but declined to make an official available for an interview.
"Communication could be better," said Luis Fernandes, the executive secretary at the sports ministry.
Still, Fernandes defended the federal government's attempts at transparency and said it relied on construction companies, as well as municipal and state authorities, to keep it -- and the public -- informed.
CONFUSION IN RECIFE
The disconnect over the cost of the Arena Pernambuco is a case in point. The stadium near the northeastern city of Recife was originally slated to cost 532 million reais and be ready six months before the World Cup.
But authorities decided to build the 46,000-seat stadium in 26 months rather than 36 so it could host games in next June's Confederations Cup, the warm-up to the big jamboree in 2014.
A year has passed since that decision, and authorities still have not said how much more it will cost to build at a faster pace, nor is an estimate available online.
"If there is an increase in the cost of the job it will be immediately communicated and put online at the transparency site," Fernandes said.
Odebrecht, the company building the stadium, acknowledged that costs will go up but could not specify by how much.
"I can't say how much," said Marcus Lessa, the managing director of Arena Pernambuco, a consortium headed by Odebrecht. "But it is not a lack of transparency, the costs will be audited."
Fernandes cautioned that only changes amounting to more than 20 percent of the total cost are immediately registered on transparency sites. It would be too time consuming to update with every minor tweak to each project, he said.
CGU officials acknowledged that some of the information is outdated or contradictory and said they are discussing streamlining the system by acting as a clearing house for transparency-related World Cup information.
Under the proposed system, the CGU would receive data on spending and progress from states and municipalities and pass it on to government ministries and agencies. That would mean the different sites will all have the same information and also reduce the burden on states and municipalities, which currently have to report several times a month to different institutions.
"In addition to making that information available on our portal we will put in a data bank and anyone can have access to it," said Fabio Santana, who advises the CGU on transparency.
Whatever the discrepancies, officials say they are happy with the sites and the advances they represent. Just introducing such systems in a nation known for its lax oversight of public spending marks a change for the better, Fernandes said.
"It is a positive step forward and I'd even say it is one of the legacies of the World Cup," he said.
($1 = 2.03 reais)
(Editing by Kieran Murray, Todd Benson and Dan Grebler)