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Far from perfect, but Brazil set fair for World Cup

By Mike Collett

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil has problems like most countries but one that appears to be rapidly disappearing is the notion that it will not be ready to host the World Cup in just over 18 months' time.

While anxieties remain about the Amazonia Arena in Manaus and airports including Belo Horizonte as well the upgrading of roads and the construction of a few hotels, Brazil looks on course to stage a successful World Cup.

"In the past 40 years only the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and the Athens Olympics in 2004 still had building worries at the end. That will not happen here," said Ricardo Trade, the chief executive of Brazil's World Cup organizing committee (LOC).

However, a general mood of skepticism remains in the country.

Many Brazilians do think the stadiums will be ready on time but a feeling exists that the transport system, airports and hotel capacity will struggle to cope.

There is also a belief that some stadiums, built at enormous cost through Brazil's continually emerging muscle as the world's sixth largest economy, are destined to become white elephants and that much of the building work is over budget.

For the last two weeks officials from world soccer's governing body FIFA, Brazil's LOC and representatives from national and state governments and the tourist board accompanied 20 foreign journalists on a tour of the six World Cup venues which will also stage matches at next year's Confederations Cup.

The stadiums are in varying states of readiness from the virtually complete Mineirao at Belo Horizonte and Fortaleza's Castelao Arena to the far-from-finished Maracana in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia's Mane Garrincha National Stadium.

But there is no sense of panic.

"We are not involved in a race against time," deputy sports minister Luis Fernandes told reporters in Brasilia.

"Our main concern is the stadium in Manaus, which, being in the Amazon jungle has its own problems - but they will be solved. All 12 stadiums will be ready for the finals."

FIRST STADIUM

The first of those stadiums officially opened its doors on Sunday when the Castelao in the north-eastern seaside city of Fortaleza was inaugurated by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

The Mineirao in Belo Horizonte will be opened on December 21 with the four others hosting Confederations Cup matches in Recife, Salvador, Brasilia and Rio due to be ready by April.

While Brasilia and Rio still appear to have a huge amount of work to complete, Rousseff could at least celebrate on Sunday with the 67,000-seater Castelao refurbished at a cost of 518.6 million reais ($248.1 million).

She said inauguration of the first stadium for the 2014 tournament as well as Corinthians' victory in the Club World Cup final in Japan showed Brazil's strength on and off the soccer field.

"Brazil is capable of both things, winning on the football fields and building a stadium of this standing," she said.

FIFA has given the four other cities hosting Confederations Cup matches until next April to be ready - but doubts remain about the iconic Maracana, the venue for the 2014 final, and the national stadium in Brasilia.

Both stadiums will support huge roofs.

"It is a very complicated task, but we are very confident it will be ready on time," Icaro Moreno, the chief engineer on the Maracana project, said.

"By the end of November the stadium was 75 percent complete and will last for 50 or 100 years - so a few weeks either way now will not damage our plans to be ready."

The same might not be said of Brasilia, which looked even more of a building site than the Maracana. Engineer claims the stadium was 84 percent complete appeared hugely optimistic, but Trade was not too concerned.

"There are targets to meet and they will all be met," he said.

"The Confederations Cup is next June, the World Cup in 18 months time. We have made promises to FIFA and to the Brazilian people and every promise we have made, we will keep."

GRAND DESIGNS

Even half-built, all the stadiums convey a sense of grandeur befitting a country that has won the World Cup a record five times and is desperate for a sixth success in 2014.

In Belo Horizonte and Fortaleza the surrounding walkways and platforms command superb views of their cities.

The stadium infrastructures themselves are all built with sustainable legacies in mind and the designs are awe-inspiring, especially in Fortaleza with one end left open looking out to the city below.

Whether Brazilian officials are being wildly optimistic that everything will be ready in time or not, they appear confident and feel everyone else should be too.

As Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo said; "My real concern, is not that we won't be ready in time because we will. But as a football fan, we must not suffer a repeat of the 1950 defeat to Uruguay which cost us the World Cup then and was a national trauma that took us years to recover from."

(Additional reporting by Todd Benson in Sao Paulo and Douglas Engle in Rio de Janeiro, editing by Ed Osmond)

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