World Cup venue Cuiaba in race against time

AFP| Updated: Nov 13, 2013, 17:33 PM IST

Cuiaba: Just like its 11 fellow venues, Cuiaba, located some 2000 kilometers northwest of Rio, will be ready to host the World Cup come June, organisers say.

But with a little over six months to the tournament and a December 31 FIFA deadline fast approaching, the city stadium has neither a pitch nor seats; there is a shortage of hotel beds and many planned improvements in local transport infrastructure have yet to materialize.

The city`s airport is undergoing a thorough overhaul and the roads leading to it are clogged due to construction of a light rail system.

"Cuiaba is getting a real facelift," says Silval Barbosa, the governor of Mato Grosso state, of which Cuiaba -- population 600,000 -- is the capital.

State secretary for World Cup-related affairs, Mauricio Souza Guimaraes says this is a huge challenge but one to which the city is rising admirably.

"We are undertaking 56 projects and many experienced delays -- but they will be completed according to schedule," Guimaraes insists.

Yet polls of residents show many doubt the "transformation" will ever be completed.

According to councillor Dilemario Alencar, a member of a panel monitoring the progress of World Cup-related projects, "there has been a lack of planning, everything is more expensive and now we are racing against the clock."

What should be the pitch at the $235-million Arena Pantanal, scheduled to host four World Cup matches, is currently a mass of sand.

That, coupled with a midday temperature touching 40 Celsius, calls more to mind a desert rather than a pristine playing surface.

The stadium structure is in place -- but the final touches are proving tough to nail down.

As of Tuesday, the stadium was 87 percent complete but FIFA says its December 31 deadline must be met ahead of a series of tests thereafter in advance of the tournament.

Although the state governor recently spoke of final completion in January, Guimaraes says FIFA`s deadline will be met.

A small fire a fortnight ago at the venue did not help matters.

When FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke visited last month some 50 locals greeted him with protests against the cost of the tournament. Some entered the stadium site to demand better salaries for public sector workers.

A month on and the visitor can espy graffiti on a stadium wall, bearing a clear message:

"The Cup can go to hell."

Seating at the stadium is still behind schedule owing to a row about the high initial projected cost.

But Guimaraes rejects talk of overcharging as, he says, the quality was "better than in the other stadiums".

The company providing the seating finally agreed to trim the cost from an initial 19.6 million reais to 18.2 million ($7.9 million).

Seating is one thing. But if that is now on track where fans will actually stay is another hot-button issue.

The city currently only has 13,000 hotel beds -- a mere quarter of the stadium capacity -- but hopes that nine new hotels will boost that to 25,000.

"We are looking for alternatives," says Guimaraes. Cuiaba is also planning to launch "casa solidaria," a plan to encourage locals to put up visiting fans.

In the city of Cuiaba stands a clock counting down the days to the start of the World Cup.

Or rather, it was counting down the days -- until it stopped at the weekend.

In the nearby Plaza de la Republica, Ana Fashion, a 33-year-old hairdresser, is waiting for customers.

She thinks Cuiaba will not be ready for the World Cup.

"Of course not, never. And what is not ready for the World Cup will never be ready, you`ll see."

Her pessimism is a feature of what Guimaraes terms the "general discredit" into which politicians of all stripes have fallen -- yet he again insists it is misplaced.

At least part of the 22-kilometer (14 mile) VLT, or light railway, will be in operation for the tournament and the rest will be completed thereafter, Guimaraes promises.

Ana turns back to her work and starts styling the hair of 15-year-old student Karol Santos, who is clearly not a convert to Guimaraes` promises.

"I hope I`ll be a long way away" from Cuiaba, come the big kickoff," she asserts.