RIO DE JANEIRO — The Confederations Cup begins following protests that turned violent in three of Brazil’s biggest cities, while builders were still slapping cement on stadiums.
The eight-nation tournament, a test of Brazil’s organizational ability a year before the World Cup, starts today in the capital Brasilia when the Selecao hosts Asian champion Japan. It ends June 30 in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium.
The quadrennial tournament is held every four years – always one year before the World Cup – among the champions of each soccer confederation, the World Cup champion and the host.
Workmen still were applying cement onto walks, attaching glass panels and painting at several stadiums as kickoff approached, but FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he was not worried about the late preparations.
“There’s a lot of work that will be done in the last minute,” he said. “So for me it is not a surprise that two days to go there is still work somewhere. It means that something is not finished so we should just say, OK, and finish it.”
Tournament officials have been monitoring street protests, handling team complaints and hoping Nigeria arrives on time.
In Brasilia, about 200 people burned tires and blocked the main road in front of the stadium that is the site of the opener. The protest was organized by local groups complaining about the excessive cost of the Confederations Cup and World Cup.
Thousands of protesters marched in Rio and Sao Paulo on Thursday to rage against increases in bus and subway fares, and some clashed with police.
Officials said roughly 5,000 protesters were in Sao Paulo’s central area. Police said 40 people were detained, some with knives and gasoline bombs.
Police in Rio said about 2,000 people protested there.
“We are monitoring the situation and we are in touch with the local authorities.” FIFA spokesman Pekka Odriozola said, adding the governing body has “full confidence and trust in the local authorities” to cope with “any circumstance.”
In Rio, Italy reportedly complained it was not advised in advance that Joao Havelange Stadium, known as the Engenhao, was closed because of a faulty roof, forcing the Azzurri to find an alternative practice venue.
In Recife, Uruguay was forced to search for a training field because the stadium chosen by the squad was not in good condition following heavy rain.
“For the World Cup, we have to be on alert so the same mistakes don’t happen again, especially the delays, the increased costs and the use of public funds,” congressman and former Brazilian national team forward Romario said.
Latin America is represented by Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico, Europe by Spain and Italy, Africa by Nigeria, Asia by Japan and Oceania by Tahiti.
Nigeria’s players threatened Thursday to strike and not travel to Brazil because the country’s soccer federation suddenly cut players’ bonus payments.
Nigeria’s players, in Namibia for a World Cup qualifier, missed their connection to Brazil and were set to arrive Saturday or Sunday, leaving them little time to prepare for their opener Monday against the part-time players of Tahiti, who should present little threat.
The competition is split into two groups, with Brazil, Japan, Mexico and Italy in Group A and Spain, Uruguay, Nigeria and Tahiti in Group B. Brazil, Italy, Spain and Uruguay or Nigeria are favored to reach the semifinals.
Brazil has dominated global soccer for years, but has slipped in the past decade, with Spain winning the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup.
Brazil’s soccer-mad supporters have been embarrassed to be relegated to 22nd in FIFA’s latest rankings, sandwiched between Ghana and Mali, a drop caused mostly by the absence of competitive matches during the last two years.
Fans are looking for salvation from Neymar, who signed with Barcelona in May. He will be wearing the No. 10 shirt for Brazil, a weighty burden considering it was worn by Pele.
On Sunday, Mexico plays Italy in Rio and Spain meets Uruguay in the rain-soaked northern city of Recife. Tahiti meets Nigeria in Belo Horizonte on Monday.
Brazil, a rising economic power which still suffers from some of the problems of a developing nation, should be able to handle the Confederations Cup with ease ahead of two massive challenges. Next year it hosts the World Cup in 12 cities across a country similar in size to Europe, and then in 2016 Rio will host the Olympic Games.