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Manaus stadium lone concern in Brazil

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The Brazilian Minister of Sport says his government and the 2014 World Cup organizing committee will be keeping a "close watch" on preparations in the northeastern city of Manaus, which have been hampered by construction delays and labour strife ahead of next year's FIFA World Cup.

In an exclusive wide-ranging interview with the Free Press (conducted apart from a conference call with international reporters), Aldo Rebelo addressed stadium preparedness, his relationship with FIFA, security concerns and the tournament's legacy, saying a successfully staged World Cup would "show the world a country that is highly qualified to host the biggest events on the planet."

To Brazil's credit, many of the projects planned ahead of both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games are on schedule, with several stadiums having already been completed.

Last month Rebelo was on hand as Fortalenza's Castel£o -- a potentially iconic stadium encased in a spectacular "glass skin" -- was opened by President Dilma Rousseff, and he is confident Rio's famous Maracan£ will be finished in time to host England in a friendly on June 2, saying FIFA had "already indicated that it agrees" with the construction timeline.

The situation in Manaus is comparatively less optimistic, however, with the Arena Amaz¥nia barely half-finished and concerns growing that the isolated city will struggle to transport and accommodate its guests during the tournament.

Located nearly 2,000 kilometres from Brasilia, it was recently singled out by FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke as an item of concern, and there have been rumblings the World Cup could contract to 11 host cities from its intended 12.

But Rebelo isn't ready to throw in the towel just yet.

"Manaus is both plan A and plan B," he says. "The people of Manaus will welcome the World Cup with open arms."

In fact, Rebelo doesn't even consider Manaus to be among the most pressing tasks on his desk. When asked what his most difficult assignment had been in his role as Minister of Sport (he was president of the Chamber of Deputies from 2005 to 2007) he cited the bringing together of public and private entities with interests both in well-built infrastructure and a successful World Cup.

"A good example is our relationship with FIFA," he says. "We've made it clear that we have no intention of failing to fulfill the agreements signed and that the correct path would be to work together."

And yet, FIFA remains ever-present, both in plaudits and criticisms.

In early December, during a Copa Sudamericana match between hosts S£o Paulo and Argentine visitors Tigre, stadium security was involved in a halftime brawl and some officers were alleged to have pulled guns on the Tigre players. Tigre refused to contest the second half, forcing the match to be awarded to S£o Paulo after just 45 minutes.

The incident did not escape the attention of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who, the following week, remarked that the violence was "a warning to the organizers of the World Cup."

Rebelo insists there is "no relation" between the incident and World Cup preparations.

"We have a security plan already structured for both inside the stadiums and surrounding areas," he says, adding that the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Defense and local police services were already working together to ensure a safe environment for players and fans.

Of particular importance to Rebelo is that the World Cup showcases Brazil as a modern, industrial nation with its arms open to the world. Brazil is a tolerant country, he says, diverse and unified and welcoming to everyone "without distinction as to race."

And, he says, the benefits of hosting a World Cup will be spread throughout the economy.

"Brazilian construction companies will acquire technology to be used in the public and private sectors," he says. "The quality of telecommunication services will improve significantly. The benefits generated by the World Cup will not be restricted to the 12 host cities."

Twelve, provided Manaus can get its act together before too long. Twitter @jerradpeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 C7

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