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FIFA keeps southern Brazilian city as World Cup host despite delays in stadium renovation

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FLORIANOPOLIS, Brazil - A southern Brazilian city will host matches during this year's World Cup despite serious problems with a stadium renovation that put it on the brink of becoming the first venue ever to be kicked out because of delays, FIFA said Tuesday.

Despite the decision to keep Curitiba in the tournament, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke warned that construction remains "very late" and said there is a very tight timeline to get the stadium ready.

FIFA said the decision was made because of "financial guarantees, the commitment by all stakeholders" and progress in renovation work.

"There is no other decision you can make (other) than keeping the city," Valcke said at a news conference. "Curitiba understood the information and the pressure that we put on three weeks ago."

He said the work done since then "gives us the confidence that, again, the stadium will be very late, but we will have a stadium for the World Cup."

The secretary general last month gave local organizers an ultimatum: Drastically speed up construction or be dropped from the tournament. He reiterated on Tuesday that local officials must keep the pace of construction at a high level.

"The pressure is there; day-to-day monitoring is there," Valcke said.

FIFA now expects the stadium to be ready in mid-May, only a month before the World Cup opening match in Sao Paulo on June 12. At least two test events are expected before that date, and the temporary structures needed outside the venue will be built while work continues inside the stadium.

"For this decision to take effect, this new pace of construction has to be maintained," Brazil's deputy sports minister, Luis Fernandes, said. "The monitoring will continue."

"Would it have been better to have the stadium ready in late December? It would have been better, of course," Fernandes said. "At the end of the day, we will have to learn from the lessons that led to the delays in Curitiba."

While Curitiba remains in the tournament with 11 other cities, the issue over the pace of construction highlights the severe organizational problems that Brazil has had to overcome since 2007, when it won the right to host this year's World Cup.

Officials in Brazil want to use the tournament to highlight the nation's advances. But widespread anti-government protests that question the billions being spent on the tournament, along with delays in preparations, have hurt Brazil's image.

FIFA's decision came just hours after Charles Botta, who reports to the federation's top management on the progress of all stadiums, made a final inspection in Curitiba. Valcke said local officials presented a 36-page report showing progress made and detailed next steps for the stadium's construction.

"Valcke was very harsh on us in the beginning, but now we see that it was needed so we could get back on track," said Celso Cunha, one of the local officials in charge of Curitiba's World Cup preparations.

The delays in Curitiba have been surprising. The city is widely considered the most advanced in Brazil, with an efficient transportation system and urban planning praised by the United Nations and others for being environmentally friendly.

But organizers in the city ran out of money and had difficulties securing additional financing to finish the work. Fernandes said local officials were eventually able to comply with FIFA'S major demands — to increase the number of workers and guarantee needed financing for completion of construction.

Brazil has had seven years to get ready, but with four months left, five stadiums remain under construction, including Curitiba. Brazil had promised FIFA to have all venues ready by the end of last year.

"This should have been ample time in which to complete the infrastructure," FIFA President Sepp Blatter said recently. He added that Brazil was the nation "farthest behind" in preparations that he'd seen in his four decades of experience with FIFA.

Among the teams set to play in Curitiba is defending World Cup champion Spain, which will face Australia on June 23. The other matches at the venue are Iran-Nigeria on June 16, Algeria-Russia on June 26 and Honduras-Ecuador on June 30.

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Associated Press writer Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

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

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