Bye-Bye Brazil: Personal Lessons from the World Cup and Olympic Games (Part 1)

Note: At the end of this three part series I offer suggestions to FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and fellow entrepreneurs.


It is late Sunday evening on September 18, 2016.

On Brazilian TV, I watch as the Maracanã stadium lights up into a ball of fire for a third and final time. Rio’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue is in the foreground overlooking the stadium and the city. The closing song is Ivete Sangalo’s Tempo de Alegria, which in Portuguese means “time of/for happiness.” It followed another song, equally uplifting, by the same performer called Poeira, meaning “dust.” Given the challenges faced by Rio, and the country, over the last several years, there could be no one-two musical combo more fitting: time for happiness as the dust settles. It even rained during the ceremony. Everyone danced.

This is the final scene in what was easily the best act of the three act play that was the 2014–2016 Brazil Games: The World Cup, Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.

I pick up the TV remote and take it in one last time. Then, I press OFF.

Staring at the blank screen, my emotions are mixed. Exhausted by the years I had invested, moved by what I had just experienced and uncertain about the future; I sit in silence, almost paralyzed.

The only thing I know at this very moment, is that this chapter in my life has definitely come to an end. The question I want to ask myself, but which I am also avoiding at all costs, is: “Was it all worth it?

July 22, 2014

“It’s Gold,” I say, “The Brasília National Stadium got (LEED) Gold!” I report over the phone to the Communications Officer of the 2014 World Cup office in Brasília.

“Please hold for a minute,” she requests.

After a few moments the Communications Officer returns and orders, “Sorry, but tell the USGBC that the Governor of Brasília does not want Gold. We wanted Platinum and if they are not willing to give it to us now, then we don’t want them to announce it at all.”

This is the first memory that comes to mind as I reflect back on my last seven years working and living in Brazil. While I had spent the prior twenty years in the United States going to great schools and working at amazing companies like Goldman Sachs, my previous life was in this wild, messy, noisy, sometimes wonderful and often frustrating place called Brazil.

I was born in São Paulo, son to an American father and a Swedish mother. I grew up loving pão de queijo (bread cheese balls), novelas (soap operas) and of course futebol (soccer). When I left Brazil for a boarding school in the United States, I knew that if the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to come back and contribute something I had learned while abroad, to try and help the country move forward in its quest for ordem e progresso. (Order and Progress are the words inscribed on Brazil’s flag — uttered usually with sarcasm by Brazilians.)

The promise of the World Cup and Olympic Games seemed like just that, a golden opportunity to move forward. A small window where grand strides could be made. The three biggest global sporting events were going to be held in my birth country, within just two years — a first! If there was ever a time when things could get done, then — this was it!

The words spoken to me by the Communications Officer, still echo in the space between my ears, as if in a time warp,

“We wanted Platinum and if they are not willing to give it to us now, then we don’t want them to announce it at all.”

Am I hearing this today, on that specific day, or in some distant time in the past? Did I know the outcome long before and still attempt to defy destiny?

I knew giving that order wasn’t easy for her (the Communications Officer.) She had been our biggest champion and the strongest supporter of LEED since the very beginning.

“Ian,” she asked, “Ian, did you get that?” Aaaaaaaaaah yes, I responded, already wondering how I would muster the courage to call the USGBC in the States to inform them that their second highest certification level wasn’t good enough. The client expected that the highest award be given before the work had actually been completed, the equivalent of giving an athlete a medal at half-time or midway through a race.

More on this later…

“The Plan”

On October 30, 2007 FIFA officially awarded the 2014 World Cup competition to the host country, Brazil. Brazilians chanted in the streets A Copa do Mundo é nossa! “The World Cup is ours!” and celebrated as if they had won the tournament, rather than just the opportunity to host it.

Winning the soccer World Cup is the greatest possible achievement for a Brazilian athlete or sports fan. Doing it on Brazilian soil would be mythically epic, a sporting orgasm so great that it could very well be your last, but which, any Brazilian fan would be willing to chance.

While I was excited at the time with the announcement, I wondered how the Brazilians would actually pull it off. But, to be honest, it barely registered with me, as I was halfway around the world.


This changed a year later, when a childhood friend came to study English in Los Angeles, not far from the area of West LA where I was living. A sports architect, frustrated with his business in São Paulo, the politics involving host city selection and the stadium design bid process, he decided he needed to take a break.

The World Cup, unlike the Olympic Games, is hosted in multiple cities across the host country. The venues are located in economic centers, typically tied to the largest soccer clubs in the country, those with the resources to invest in facility upgrades. Brazil’s ambition to make it the “Greatest World Cup Ever” led then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) to make the ill-advised decision to select 12 host cities and to spread the event across the country geographically, including to cities with no major soccer clubs or leagues which would certainly struggle to support the facilities after the games. Lula went further and “guaranteed” Brazilians that all stadium construction would be privately funded, a statement with no foundation (and arguably, purposely misleading), given that most of the soccer clubs in Brazil ran in the red and needed government support to cover basic operating costs. No private company would even entertain a due diligence, at least not under the way Brazilian clubs are currently organized.
Brazilian soccer clubs are run like social clubs, not like businesses. Leadership is vehemently disputed among the eldest members (of their respective clubs), members who have proven their passion and loyalty to the club. The political capital necessary to win a club presidency takes decades to build and explains why no outsiders are ever allowed and why new ideas are hard to come by, to the detriment of the very institution — and Brazilian soccer in general.
To complicate matters, when soccer players get sold for millions of dollars to clubs in Europe or Asia, the money typically goes to club officials who have a direct equity participation in the athlete, not to the club. Spiderman could not spin a more complex web. The spinners (elected leaders) alternate between predator and prey, yet no one ever seems to get eaten. How this has not yet been the subject of a novela, I don’t know.)

In listening to my friend, it became clear to me that Brazil was in chaos. There was no plan and any Brazilian could tell you that things would happen as they always did; everything would come together at the last minute at a cost that would be several multiples of what it should be. The rest of the world was already losing confidence that the event would even take place. So I thought, maybe this was my chance to contribute.

Perhaps I was far enough removed from the problem that I could tackle it from a different angle. Maybe my being in LA was an advantage!

I had spent years in Los Angeles at this point. I had gained a real appreciation for LA’s “Showtime” sports culture and Hollywood’s “no dream is too big” mindset. I had also been exposed to the environmental and sustainability movement of the West Coast.

The idea came to me when I remembered reading how earlier that year (March 2008), a professional sports stadium (Nationals Park in Washington, DC) had become the first to be “green” certified under a system called LEED.

This could be it! I thought.

What if the twelve stadiums that were going to be built for the Brazil World Cup were built to be “green?” I figured, this was Brazil, home to the world’s most biodiverse and rich biome. How could politicians and event organizers not rally around the environment and soccer stadiums, better yet, soccer stadiums planned and built with the environment in mind?

I had no experience with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a green building certification system developed by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. I wasn’t a certified architect or engineer. But, after a bit of research I decided to sit down over Christmas and New Years of 2008 and write the CopaVerde (Green Cup) Plan.

While many are familiar with the term Copa — meaning trophy or tournament in both Portuguese and Spanish, most don’t know that the word also describes the part of the tree that serves as an important sanctuary for life in forests — its crown. Verde means green.) My blind love for soccer, and the idea of stadiums as sanctuaries in Brazil, led me to my Jerry Maguire moment.

With the help of my friend, I published the Plan (on the Internet) on January 1st 2009. The “Plan” was a call-to-action for stadium architects, engineers, host city officials, and builders to participate in a healthy and collaborative competition (competition was key) to build the greenest sport stadiums in the world. A portfolio of EcoArenas — what we came to call facilities that would be both economic and ecologically friendly, certified under an international standard, LEED. This would give Brazil the credibility it sought to lay claim that its World Cup was the “greatest ever.”

In this case, it would be the greatest because it would be the greenest.

The Plan included many other initiatives that would stem from the stadiums, but the central idea was that LEED-certified EcoArenas would serve as green “seeds” in each host city, helping planners embark on the path of developing sustainable, smart, technologically integrated, and real-time managed cities. If successful, Brazil could become an example of sustainable development and green building, and benefit from the global media the international games would provide. With solid planning, the development of green jobs and modern-efficient stadiums, Brazil could earn a legitimate spot at the table with global leaders (at least when it came to the subject of the environment and sustainability.)

While the 2006 World Cup in Germany had made important strides with recycling in Munich, and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa had improved water efficiency within their stadiums (a necessity given the arid climate), we wanted whole-building performance enhancement and better stadium-community integration for the Brazilian stadiums in 2014.

We felt the moment was right to bring together modern design concepts with technology, and in doing so, that we could achieve dramatic improvements across all building performance categories.

We were confident that Brazil could not only certify all of its stadiums but also achieve high levels of certification given its exceptional solar incidence (lots of sun) and ample rainfall in most regions.

The four LEED certification levels include: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. We believed most, if not all of the 12 stadiums could reach Silver, and with a bit more effort some could obtain Gold. If investments were made in solar power generation, then Platinum was in play.

But, as we reached out to the press to try to build some momentum, we were asked,

“How could stadiums be green and what did stadiums have to do with the Amazon jungle?”

The question was understandable for the time, and President Lula didn’t help matters when he claimed in July of 2010 that “we will deliver a Copa Verde (Green Cup); that will be green like our forests.”

Many thought this explained why he wanted to build a stadium in the middle of the Amazon and another in the Pantanal. Were they for the animals?, I wondered. I am pretty certain that even Lula didn’t know what he meant by those words.

If the intention was to further promote soccer to new regions of the country, then any expert could tell you there were more resource efficient ways to accomplish this. Now we had to explain that CopaVerde was not about building stadiums in jungles, it was just the opposite.

I even produced a terribly embarrassing video to try to promote the idea. If you want a good laugh go ahead and watch, but please take into consideration that I grew up liking Brazilian cheese balls and was highly influenced by novelas as a child.

The tide turned when we were able to convince the Green Building Council of South Africa to support the CopaVerde Plan. They too had been frustrated by their efforts with stadium builders ahead of the 2010 World Cup. With the support of South Africa, Brazil and the U.S. Green Building Council, we were able to gain momentum and credibility with the Brazilian press. Still, FIFA would not take our calls. Their priorities, unfortunately, laid elsewhere.

Later, in 2011, FIFA did add green building certification (not specifying which system should be used) to their stadium designer’s handbook “Football Stadiums: Technical recommendations and requirements.” But the “requirement” would only apply to future World Cups, not to Brazil.
Too little, too late.

Nine months after we had published the CopaVede Plan, we sat down with the 2014 stadium architects at a World Cup conference in Salvador, Bahia. I gave a presentation which appeared to convince everyone present that “CopaVerde” was an idea we should all want to participate in — a competition that would benefit us all. I felt that the designers left the conference confident that this LEED dragon could be slayed with a bit of effort and teamwork. I thought, it’s on!

By now, I had become a LEED accredited professional and was invited by my friend’s firm to help design the first LEED Platinum stadium in the world. If I was going to be part of this competition — that I had started, then of course, I had to win!

This, was going to become the competition of our lives.

Tap on “Follow” to receive Part II, where we get into the challenges facing Legacy Planning of the Games.

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