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Another World Cup stadium ready in Brazil but problems far from over for local organizers

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SAO PAULO - Brazilian organizers have completed another World Cup stadium. Yet there was little reason to celebrate Wednesday amid doubts about when or even if the remaining five venues will be ready in time for football's showcase tournament in June.

The Arena das Dunas in the northeastern city of Natal was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who took a symbolic first kick in front of a few thousand people.

The event came a day after organizers admitted there is a serious risk the southern city of Curitiba might be dropped from the tournament because of lagging stadium construction.

Brazil's World Cup organizing committee admitted FIFA might have to consider reshuffling the tournament's matches, which would be an embarrassment for the country and disastrous for football's governing body as more than 1 million game tickets have already been sold.

"We know we had several warnings but it seems that these warnings were not taken seriously," Jose Maria Marin, the committee's president, told reporters. "It's a difficult situation."

Brazil promised to deliver all 12 World Cup stadiums by the end of 2013, but five are still under construction and at least two of those will not be ready until about two months before the tournament's June 12 start. One of those two is the Itaquerao stadium in Sao Paulo, which is supposed to host the World Cup's opening match.

In Natal, work was being done until the last minute before the inauguration of the Arena das Dunas, a 42,000-capacity stadium hosting four matches in the World Cup's opening round — Mexico vs. Cameroon, Ghana vs. United States, Japan vs. Greece and Italy vs. Uruguay.

The pace of stadium construction is likely to be on the agenda when Rousseff meets with FIFA President Sepp Blatter in Zurich on Thursday.

The delay in building the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba is the biggest problem so far. FIFA and local organizers will make another evaluation there Feb. 18, but even if Curitiba is kept as a host city, the stadium isn't likely to be ready until a few weeks before the World Cup.

"We can't believe in the worst. On the contrary, I believe that the governor, the mayor and the entrepreneurs responsible for the stadium in Curitiba will have it ready in time," Rousseff said. "I have to bet in favour of that, not against."

The Itaquerao stadium in Sao Paulo is where two workers were killed late last year when a crane collapsed while hoisting a huge roofing structure. It isn't expected to be done until mid-April.

Officials say the three other unfinished stadiums will be ready before then, but the timing remains unclear.

Organizers were hoping to have the first match at the renovated Beira-Rio stadium in the southern city of Porto Alegre on Jan. 29, but civil defence officials monitoring construction said Wednesday there might not be enough time to get everything ready by then.

The Arena Pantanal in the wetlands city of Cuiaba was listed as 90 per cent complete going into January. The Arena da Amazonia in the jungle city of Manaus, where a worker fell to his death from about 115 feet (35 metres) up in December, was about 95 per cent ready.

There also have been problems at some of the stadiums already completed.

The roof leaks at the stadium in the capital of Brasilia, and there are concerns about the condition of its playing field. On Wednesday, FIFA inspectors recommended officials reduce the number of matches scheduled there before the World Cup to preserve the grass.

Also Wednesday, Brazilian authorities announced that the 12 host cities will have integrated command centres to provide security during the monthlong tournament.

The estimated $14 billion that Brazil is spending to put on the World Cup has been one of the targets of anti-government protests that erupted last year, and several times demonstrators clashed with police trying to reach stadium sites.

On Wednesday, during the inauguration ceremony for the Arena das Dunas, nearly 300 demonstrators gathered outside the stadium to protest the tournament's cost, local media reported. Globo TV said some protesters vandalized a car.

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Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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