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Sep 7, 2012

Clock ticks for Brazil

RECIFE, Brazil -- With its rivers, beaches and coral reefs, Recife is where many Brazilians go to lay back and relax. Yet, 12 miles from downtown there's high anxiety and constant noise.

More than 4,000 workers are going almost around the clock to build a soccer stadium aimed at attracting world attention.

Construction officials say Arena Pernambuco is just more than half finished. Officials need to reach 80 percent in October.

That's when FIFA arrives in this northeast city, nicknamed the Venice of Brazil, for a final inspection and proof that the 46,000-seat stadium is on track to be completed in February, as scheduled.

At stake is a place in next year's Confederations Cup, the warmup event for the 2014 World Cup. Recife will definitely host matches in the World Cup, but it doesn't want to be dropped from the Confederations Cup and is wary of any problem that could derail the city's chances.

"If anything goes wrong now, we will have trouble making the deadline," Ricardo Leitao, the government official in charge of the World Cup organization in Recife, told The Associated Press. "We can't lose a single day. We have to keep our foot all the way down on the throttle."

Recife is trying to avoid repeating the disappointment of other venues that didn't get to participate in previous Confederations Cups. It happened to Kaiserslautern in Germany in 2005 and Port Elizabeth in South Africa in 2009.

Port Elizabeth's Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was originally selected as a Confederations Cup host but was dropped because organizers didn't think the venue was going to be ready. Kaiserslautern withdrew its bid saying it wanted to avoid the extra costs needed to get the city prepared.

When FIFA announced Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza, Salvador and Recife would host the Confederations Cup, soccer's governing body made it clear that Salvador and Recife would be included only if they showed enough progress by November, which is when FIFA will start preparing the tournament's ticket sales.

FIFA said it prepared match schedules with four and five cities, in case Salvador and Recife are not ready on time.

Salvador has 70 percent of the work completed at Fonte Nova Arena and seems in position to secure its place, but Recife has been a cause for concern for some time.

FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said last week that though there are no stadiums behind schedule, the situation in Recife needs to be closely monitored.

"There's no issue with this stadium for the World Cup," Valcke said. "There's just an issue to make sure that this stadium will be able to deliver all the commitments, all the requirements we have in order to be a Confederations Cup stadium. That's it. Very simple."

The stadium will host three matches if it's included in the warmup tournament, and five in the World Cup, including one in second round. The Confederations Cup will be played June 15-30, featuring the six continental champions, the World Cup winner and the host team.

Seven teams have secured spots: Asian champion Japan, CONCACAF Gold Cup winner Mexico, South American champion Uruguay, World Cup winner Spain, European runner-up Italy, Oceania champion Tahiti and host Brazil. The Africa Cup of Nations winner will be known in February.

Arena Pernambuco originally was scheduled to be completed at the end of 2013, but when the city was selected as a Confederations Cup host, FIFA changed the deadline to February.

Deals with contractors had to be redone, and the delivery of material and machinery had to be rushed. Infrastructure work around the stadium also had to be accelerated. The more than 4,000 workers on site are nearly three times more than in the beginning.

It is the only stadium among the six Confederations Cup venues that didn't exist before and had to be planned from scratch. Its construction began in July 2010, but last April work had to be intensified significantly to try to meet the FIFA deadline.

"We are confident but we have to be realistic," Leitao said. "We had to accelerate the timetable by 10 months, adjusting all phases of construction. This is a big undertaking, it's far from simple."

The biggest fear is another workers' strike, which has plagued many of the dozen World Cup stadiums.

"If construction stops even for just five days because of a strike like it happened last time, it will affect us," Leitao said. "There is a good relationship with the unions, but it's something that's always on our radar."

The arena initially was budgeted at $260 million, but organizers acknowledge that costs likely will increase with the need to expedite construction for the Confederations Cup.

"If we don't get into the tournament, we will lose the second-most prestigious football tournament in the world," Leitao said. "That means losing a lot of international visibility and the opportunity to attract a lot of tourists to the city."

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