Brazil races to be ready for Ronaldo and Messi
One month from the start of the World Cup, Brazil is scrambling to get the stage ready for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi while dousing lingering anger at the multi-billion dollar price tag.
As championships around the world draw to a close, Ronaldo and Messi are bracing to headline a galaxy of stars at the four-week showpiece which kicks off on June 12 in Sao Paulo.
Organisers hope Brazil`s opening game against Croatia at the futuristic Corinthians Arena will draw a line under the pre-tournament chaos, allowing football to finally take centre-stage.
The stadium has itself become emblematic of the problems faced during the build-up, where the logistical complexities of staging the 32-team extravaganza have at times appeared overwhelming.
Construction of the $424 million stadium ground to a halt in November, when a giant crane toppled over and killed two workers. A third labourer died in an accident in March.
The 68,000-capacity venue is one of 12 World Cup stadiums that were supposed to be ready by the end of December. Only six were completed on time, with final delivery to FIFA pushed back to May 15.
Eight workers have died so far during construction of World Cup venues, with the most recent involving a 32-year-old man electrocuted at the Pantanal Arena in Cuiaba on Thursday.
"We`ve been through hell," FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke said last week as he reflected on the campaign to press Brazilian officials to speed up construction.
"We`re supporting Brazil to ensure that it`s a success because the whole of FIFA is based around the success of the World Cup," Valcke said. "If the World Cup is a failure then we, FIFA, are in trouble."
The estimated $11 billion Brazil is spending on the tournament has angered many in a country grappling with chronically under-funded health and public services, poor transport and violent crime.
The scale of the protests at the Confederations Cup appeared to catch Brazilian authorities off-guard, and a massive security blanket will be draped across the World Cup in an effort to avoid similar scenes.
Around 150,000 police and soldiers and some 20,000 private security officers will be deployed across the 12 host venues to counter protesters whose slogan is "the Cup will not take place."
Violent protests have flared intermittently since last year. Last month, a man was killed during clashes with police in Rio de Janeiro`s Copacabana beach district.
Brazilian authorities insist however that the possibility of protests, and rates of violent street crime in several cities, should not be a deterrent to the estimated 600,000 foreign fans expected to travel to the World Cup.
"We all have our tragedies and challenges, serious problems relating to security," Brazilian sports minister Aldo Rebelo said. "We have our deficiencies but will tackle the problems and overcome them."
Despite the off-field problems, the tournament itself promises to be a classic, with defending champions Spain bidding to make history by becoming the first side from Europe to win a World Cup in South America.
Vicente del Bosque`s side have dominated international football for the past six years, winning two consecutive European championships either side of their memorable triumph at the 2010 World Cup.
But the slick-passing Spanish were given a foretaste of what awaits them at this year`s World Cup when they were blown away by Brazil in the final of last year`s Confederations Cup.
Brazil, chasing a record sixth World Cup, host the tournament for the first time since their loss to Uruguay in the climax of the 1950 finals, when their neighbours inflicted a defeat which became a national trauma.
"We`re not just favourites -- we have a duty of winning the World Cup," said Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari in a recent interview.
Brazil will look to the scintillating skills of striker Neymar -- player of the tournament at the Confederations Cup last year -- to provide the attacking flair.
If Neymar shines, the tournament could become a duel between him and his Barcelona team-mate, Messi.
The Argentina maestro has had a quiet year by his standards, losing his FIFA Ballon D`Or crown to Real Madrid`s Ronaldo, in an injury-disrupted season.
But Messi has revelled in the famous blue-and-white shirt since being handed the captaincy by coach Alejandro Sabella, and will be aiming to erase the memory of a disappointing 2010 tournament.
Argentina and Brazil could conceivably meet in the July 13 final at the refurbished Maracana Stadium, if the European challenge led by Spain, Germany and Italy falters.