Brazilian stadiums still getting final touches
The first test of Brazil's ability to host the World Cup and Olympic Games over the next three years begins on Saturday when the eight-nation Confederations Cup tournament kicks off.
The new or renovated stadiums around Brazil are ready, give or take a lick of paint and a final sweep.
And violent protests on the streets of two of the biggest cities, Rio and Sao Paulo, have tested authorities' ability to deal with civil unrest.
The tournament starts in the capital Brasilia with a game between the host and Asian champion Japan. It ends in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium two weeks later.
The tournament is held every four years - always one year before the World Cup - between the champions of each football confederation.
Workmen were still applying cement onto walls, attaching glass panels and painting at several stadiums as the clock ticked down to kick-off, but FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he was not worried about the last-minute 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, okay, and finish it.''
While the paint and cement dry, tournament officials have been keeping an eye on the street protests, handling team complaints, and hoping Nigeria turn up on time.
In the capital Brasilia, about 200 people burned tires and blocked the main road in front of the Brasilia stadium which will host the Confederations Cup opener.
The protest was organized by local groups complaining about the excessive cost of the Confederations Cup and World Cup. A black cloud of smoke was seen near the stadium Friday morning as protesters held banners complaining about the local government.
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, where they clashed with police who fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowd. Police said 40 people were detained, some with knives and gasoline bombs.
Police in Rio said about 2,000 people protested there.
FIFA expressed ''full confidence'' that Brazilian police can cope with disorder in the streets after the violent protests.
Asked about the protests, FIFA spokesman Pekka Odriozola said that ''we are monitoring the situation and we are in touch with the local authorities.''
But he insisted that FIFA has ''full confidence and trust in the local authorities'' to cope with ''any circumstance.''
In Recife, Uruguay was forced to go looking for a new practice pitch because the stadium chosen by the squad was not in good condition following heavy rains.
''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 Brazil striker Romario said.
Latin America is represented here by Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico, Europe by Spain and Italy, Africa by Nigeria, Asia by Japan and the tiny footballing nation of Tahiti, which had an easy passage to the tournament against weak opposition in the Oceania group.
Italy's star forward Mario Balotelli exited the training pitch with a right leg muscle problem, two days before the Azzurri play their first game against Mexico.
The Italian football federation said that Balotelli walked off a closed training session with team physician Enrico Castellacci but that it was only for precautionary reasons and related to a previous physical problem.
Nigeria gave world football authority FIFA a shock on Thursday when its players threatened to go on strike and not travel to Brazil because the country's football association suddenly cut players' bonus payments.
Nigeria's players, in Namibia for a game, missed their connection to Brazil and will arrive late on Saturday or Sunday, leaving them very little time to prepare for their first game on Monday. Their first game is 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, with many football fans hoping for a Brazil vs.Spain final at the iconic Maracana on June 30.
Brazil has dominated global football for years, but has slipped in the last decade, with Spain rising to become the top global team, holding the world and European titles.
Brazil's football-mad supporters have been embarrassed to be relegated to 22nd in FIFA's latest rankings, sandwiched between Ghana and Mali, and are looking for salvation from the latest goal-scoring sensation Neymar, who signed for Barcelona last month.
Neymar will be wearing the No. 10 shirt for Brazil, a weighty burden considering it was worn by Pele, arguably the best player ever.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazil coach who led the country's national team to its fifth World Cup title in 2002 and is back for a second spell in charge, is playing down Neymar's influence. ''He's not going to play with 11 jerseys on his back. He plays with one jersey,'' Scolari said Friday. ''I have nothing to demand from him.''
On Sunday, Mexico play Italy in Rio and Spain play Uruguay in the rain-soaked northern city of Recife. Tahiti meets Nigeria in Belo Horizonte on Monday, ending the first round of games.
Brazil, a rising global economic power which still suffers from some of the headaches of a developing nation, should be able to handle the Confederations Cup with ease because it faces two massive challenges over the next three years.
Next year it hosts the World Cup in 12 cities across a country which is similar in size to Europe, and then in 2016 Rio will host the Olympic Games.