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By Brian Winter
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - It's the catchphrase of the year in Brazil: "Imagina na Copa!"
The Portuguese phrase, which basically means "Imagine what it'll be like during the World Cup," has become a favourite among Brazilians stuck in traffic, or in line at their woefully overcrowded airports.
The underlying belief is that the chaos will be worse when Brazil hosts the football tournament in June 2014, and hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors fly in to see the games.
Yet Paulo Resende, one of the country's leading logistics experts, says that fear is misplaced.
After a recent survey of about 20 leading local corporations and travel agencies, Resende believes Brazil's airports and roads will actually see substantially less traffic during the World Cup than on normal business days.
The reason: Brazilians have heard so many doomsday predictions about gridlock that companies will avoid business travel, families will avoid vacations and some people will just stay at home as much as possible and watch the games on TV during the month the World Cup is in progress, Resende says.
In other words: "Imagina na Copa" may end up being the event's salvation.
"What luck - our incompetence is going to save us," said Resende, a dean at the Fundacao Dom Cabral, a business school in Belo Horizonte. "People are so worried about the Cup that some are going to close themselves inside."
Some 300,000 foreign tourists poured into South Africa when it hosted the most recent World Cup in 2010, according to Grant Thornton, a consultancy firm. Brazil is expecting huge numbers too, as the country's football-mad reputation - and record five Cup titles - is expected to be a big draw.
Resende said 100 percent of Brazilian companies he surveyed planned to defer travel during the Cup, which will feature games in 12 host cities. Travel agencies also reported customers are explicitly requesting 2014 vacation packages that do not fall during the event, while some who had booked during that period are now trying to change their dates, he said.
Observers cited a similar phenomenon when London hosted the Summer Olympics last year, and avoided major problems in part because many locals deserted the city. South Africa also experienced lower than normal domestic air passenger traffic during the 2010 Cup, Resende said.
Yet there was no such slowdown when Germany hosted the 2006 tournament, Resende said. And it is also clear that Brazil is a unique case in many ways.
OBSOLETE TRANSPORT GRID
Brazil is not only trying to prepare for the World Cup and the Olympics, which Rio de Janeiro will host in 2016. The country is also struggling to upgrade infrastructure that was left obsolete after an economic boom last decade.
For example, domestic air passenger traffic has more than tripled since 2000 as millions of Brazilians joined the middle class and flew for the first time. Sao Paulo's international airport, the country's busiest, received 34 million passengers last year - nearly double its official capacity. Lines and delays at the aging facility are legendary.
The government had originally planned to use the two sporting events as a kind of excuse for a broad, lasting overhaul of the transportation grid. But bureaucracy and a lack of resources have caused one project after another to be shelved.
Cuiaba, a mid-sized host city in western Brazil, likely will not finish a planned light-rail system in time for the Cup, government auditors said in December. A monorail link at Sao Paulo's other domestic airport will not be ready until after the tournament is over, the state's governor said in November.
"It's a shame," Resende said. "The reality will be distant from what was originally expected."
World football body FIFA has expressed concern about stadiums in Rio and elsewhere being ready on time for the Cup. Other logistical issues, such as whether Brazil's already strained mobile phone networks can handle the extra traffic from foreign visitors, also are an open question.
To compensate for the lack of progress on transportation, Brazil's government has said it will declare holidays in the host cities on days that games are being played, keeping kids out of school and many workers at home.
The high number of holidays - there will be as many as five in Sao Paulo, Brazil's business capital - has caused some fretting among economists about lost productivity. Others counter that Brazilians are so football-obsessed that they were never likely to get much work done during the Cup anyway.
Resende plans to conduct a more detailed version of the survey in early 2013 to forecast exactly how much passenger traffic will fall. But he said the planned holiday, plus the fear factor, will clearly lead to a fall in activity.
"You're going to see all these photos of big empty streets (during the Cup), and people from Europe are going to say, 'Wow, Brazil is a rich country, look how good their infrastructure is,'" Resende said, laughing.
"It's perverse. But it looks like that's what will happen."
(Editing by Kieran Murray and Bill Trott)