Confed Cup gets going in lively Brazil
With good spirit in the stadiums and protests outside, the Confederations Cup is underway in Brazil.
It's a been long way from perfect but the first round of matches ended on Monday with favorites Brazil, Italy and Spain winning and the host nation getting an idea, in organizational terms, what it will have to improve on for the rest of the tournament - and for the World Cup a year from now.
There is still a lot of unfinished work in the six host cities across Brazil and there have been mistakes by organizers along with a lack of infrastructure in the some of the airports.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke acknowledged after the inaugural match that there are things to ''improve,'' but says ''all together it really was a success.''
''It was the kickoff of the tournament for which we have been working for the last six years,'' FIFA Secretary General Valcke said. ''It is working. For sure you can always improve things, but that's part of what we will do right after the competition. But we can say all together it really was a success.''
The eight-team Confederations Cup is the biggest dry run for Brazil before it hosts soccer's showcase event in 2014 and the Rio Olympics in 2016.
There has been a festive atmosphere for fans inside the stadiums, but a wave of protests against local government across the host cities have created havoc before some of the matches.
Clashes between police and demonstrators happened outside stadiums in three of the six Confederations Cup venues - Brasilia, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro - leading to arrests and disrupting the entrance of fans into the stadiums. In those cities, the protesters complained that too much money was being spent on the tournaments this year and next while the majority of the population continues to struggle.
Some of the more violent confrontations happened just hours before the opening match in Brasilia, which also witnessed an embarrassing moment for FIFA President Sepp Blatter and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
They were met by loud boos from the crowd when introduced for a pre-game speech at the National Stadium, prompting the FIFA president to break protocol and call for ''respect'' and ''fair play'' from the ''friends of Brazilian football.'' He was jeered even louder after that.
Organizers in Brasilia also went through an embarrassing situation a few days before the first match, when they were forced to close the accreditation center for a few hours because they ran out of material to print permits for workers, volunteers and journalists. To make things worse, some of the volunteers sent to help the foreigners didn't speak English.
The condition of the pitch, one of the most expensive built in Brazil, was also a problem.
''The quality of the pitch has to be improved,'' Valcke said in an interview on FIFA's website. ''But that's something we will work on to have the best pitches at the time of the World Cup.''
And the day after the match in the nation's capital, Brazil's lack of airport infrastructure was on display. Fans and journalists leaving the city endured huge lines to check in for their flights and local airlines clearly were not prepared to deal with the increased flow of passengers.
Visitors also had to deal with water leaks at Salvador airport, being forced to squeeze through a corridor to avoid getting wet on their way to claim their baggage.
''Sorry for the disorder. We are building a new airport,'' read a sign to passengers.
Only two of the stadiums were delivered on time, and unfinished work was visible outside nearly all venues, especially the Maracana, the Arena Pernambuco in Recife and the Castelao in Fortaleza. But the stadiums were mostly full for the first matches. The exception was the game between newcomer Tahiti and Nigeria in Belo Horizonte, where little more than 20,000 fans showed up.
The African champion nearly didn't make it to the match after threatening not travel to Brazil because the country's football federation suddenly cut players' bonus payments, but it eventually arrived in time to defeat Tahiti 6-1.
The northeastern city of Recife has been marked by unfinished work at the stadium and poor infrastructure throughout the venue. Fans endured significant problems trying to get to the Arena Pernambuco, which is located about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the city center. Public transportation offered on match day did not work properly and it took hours for fans to get in and out of the venue.
Brazilian officials say the stadium was deliberately built in a remote and poor neighborhood to stimulate economic development there.
''We will keep the same transportation plan in place, but we will try to improve things for the next match,'' said Ricardo Leitao, the government official in charge of the local preparations.
Teams in Recife also faced difficulties. South America champion Uruguay complained that it took the squad 90 minutes to drive to a practice field because of road construction and traffic jams. That forced the team to turn down a chance to train just days before its debut. The team also had to work out in a local gym because the training field was under water from torrential rain.
In Rio de Janeiro, Italy reportedly was not advised in advance that the Joao Havelange Stadium was closed because of a faulty roof, forcing the Azzurri to find an alternative practice venue.
But team captain Gianluigi Buffon offered an honest answer when he was asked about the tournament's organization.
''We players live in a situation which is privileged for some aspects,'' he said. ''We have an escort when we move around so efficiency is optimal. So I really can't comment on what other people have encountered. This is a really big tournament because you have the best squads in the world playing in a country where football is extremely popular.''
Italy's first match was at the renovated Maracana and the crowd atmosphere was buzzing, highlighted by Brazilians loudly cheering Italy striker Mario Balotelli during the match. In Europe, Balotelli and other black players have faced racist abuse.
Ticket sales have been a success for the warm-up tournament, reaching record levels compared to other tournaments. But distribution of the tickets was not so great, and fans faced difficulties picking them up nearly everywhere in the country.
''We have to say thanks to all the ones who have been working on the ticketing office,'' Valcke said. ''Because they have done a great and an amazing job by delivering all the tickets on time.''
Associated Press writers Steve Wade in Recife, Andrew Dampf in Rio de Janeiro and Ricardo Zuniga in Salvador contributed to this report.
Follow Tales Azzoni at http://twitter.com/tazzoni