Worries persist over Brazil readiness for 2014
Sao Paulo: FIFA will Saturday fire the starting gun for the build-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with the qualifying draw in Rio.
But lingering worries over security and the country's infrastructure continue to occupy the minds of organisers.
Several of the 12 venues, including the mythical Maracana in Rio, remain either behind schedule on construction or renovation, and/or over budget.
A mooted new venue in Natal in the north east of the huge country of almost 200 million people has yet to see the light of day and another in Minas Gerais state in the south east is behind schedule owing to worker protests.
"If work goes on at its current rate, when we have the Confederations Cup a year before the World Cup, there won't be matches in Rio and Sao Paulo - the World Cup venues won't be ready," FIFA president Sepp Blatter fretted in March.
Organisers in Rio say they believe that the Maracana will finally be spick and span in time - but only after renovations costing some 625 million dollars.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff insists that the construction programme "will be duly completed on time," in the words of her Ministry of Sports assessor Alcino Rocha.
But above and beyond the stadium costs further associated public funds of public investment are still required to the tune of an estimated 11.4 billion dollars.
Much of that will go on improving the road network, boosting hotel capacity, reinforcing security, modernising telecommunications systems and also improving air traffic capacity with the current network's capacity already full to bursting point.
A major influx of tourism on a nationwide scale would likely see the system collapse, causing chaos to the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of fans.
"During June and July 2014, the Cup will generate an additional flow of some 2.25 million passengers through Brazilian airports," according to a report from the Getulio Vargas Foundation and consultancy Ernst & Young Terco.
That influx corresponds only to median passenger numbers for the summer of 2009, meaning extra capacity is sorely needed.
"To deal with this increase investments of 1.213 billion reals" - or some 777.5 million dollars - will be undertaken, according to the report.
Official reports warn that of 13 airports being expanded in time for the Copa to serve the 12 venues, nine will not be completed on time.
"One cannot see this issue just in terms of the Cup - there has to be planning so that the investments can be signed off and approved," Marcos Nicolas, executive director of Ernst & Young Terco, said.
The government has already launched plans to privatise several major airports, including Guarulhos, serving Sao Paulo, Viracopos (Campinas) and Brasilia.
Although officials say things are coming together, respected sports journalist Celso Unzelte warns that the country's "structural problems...won't get resolved in three years."
Unzelte indicated to AFP: "The event will go ahead as FIFA dropped the level of its demands" for the hosting of the jamboree.
And Unzelte added that, despite former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva insisting the country would pull it off, Brazil in reality "cannot aspire to host the best World Cup in history," even as it strains to modernise as fast as possible to meet expectations.
Former star Romario agrees.
"Only Jesus can get Brazil to host the best ever World Cup. If he shows up in three years time then it will be possible."