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November 27, 2014

Soccer World Cup - Preview

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Itaquerão stadium a worry for opener

Lionel Messi gestures during a training session at Independencia Stadium in Belo Horizonte

Host nation faces Croatia today at 5pm in World Cup’s first match

There are big expectations for the start of the World Cup today at 5pm with the match between host Brazil and Croatia, but it will also be the first big test for the Itaquerão stadium, which is still unfinished and was never used at its full capacity.

SAO PAULO — The biggest question for today’s opening match of the World Cup isn’t whether host Brazil can beat Croatia today at 5pm but how the unfinished and troublesome Itaquerão stadium will hold up in its first ever encounter with a full-capacity crowd.

Will everything work? More importantly, will the 61,600 spectators be safe? Not even World Cup organizers can be totally sure. Because of chronic delays, worker deaths and other problems during its construction, the new arena has never been match-tested at close to full capacity.

Heads of state, VIPs and other lucky ticket holders will, like it or not, become guinea pigs by making up the first crowd to completely fill the stadium and put full strain on all its facilities, safety plans and equipment, managers and staff.

“If that was me who had to run that event, I’d be extremely nervous,” said John Beattie, president of the European Stadium and Safety Management Association, an industry group of sports-venue executives.

Alarmingly, seemingly lax security at and around the Itaquerão allowed an Associated Press reporter to wander freely this week through unfinished and empty rooms, electrical rooms and uncompleted executive suites. Exposed wires and unfitted lights hung from ceilings. Corridors and other areas smelling strongly of plaster, paint and glue were clogged with uninstalled furniture and fittings, piled up crates of catering equipment and construction materials waiting to be carted away.

Not once in more than two hours Tuesday — some 48 hours before the stadium fills for the opening match — did anyone ask or challenge the reporter as he explored multiple floors, in areas on all four sides of the stadium and in unfinished hospitality tents outside where sponsors and organizers will host guests and clients. Only once, at the perimetre fence when entering the stadium complex, were the reporter’s credentials and heavy bag scanned.

“That’s outrageous,” said Lou Elliston, an inspector at the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, a British government regulator of soccer venues in England and Wales. She oversaw the openings of the renovated Wembley Stadium in London and the new Emirates Stadium that Arsenal moved to in 2006.

“It’s just unthinkable. You could not wander around Wembley. You would just come across doors that you couldn’t get through. That is a big issue.”

“It’s a security risk, if nothing else,” she added. “The stadium has got to be locked down and secure.”

Beattie added: “For an event of that nature you’d think it would be shut down, you know, a month ago.”

Corinthians, the club that will use it after the World Cup, said the venue received all the necessary permits from local authorities for the opening game. FIFA didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions. Brazilian World Cup organizers said inspections “for the safety and security licenses have been completed in line with standard Brazilian procedures.”

The last time Brazil played at home in the World Cup finals a 2-1 loss to Uruguay ended its hopes of a winning a first world title and plunged the country into a state of mourning.

When the Brazilians face Croatia in the opening match of this year’s championship today 64 years after that tumultuous loss, the pressure to win will be just as huge.

Defeat by Croatia at the Corinthians arena would not mark the end of Brazil’s World Cup chances. It would, however, deflate a nation of 200 million people who expect the home team not only to win this match but every one of their games over the next month. Nothing except a sixth world title will suffice.

Argentina, with Lionel Messi as its leader, is among the title favourites, with Germany and defending champion Spain.

AP, Reuters

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