On the eve of Friday’s draw, and amid lingering doubts all the venues will be ready in time, a trio of Brazilian legends on Thursday vowed their country will host a successful World Cup.
As Fifa readied the 32 balls representing each qualified team to be distributed across eight groups of four in the northeastern resort of Costa do Sauipe former champions Ronaldo, Bebeto and Mario Zagallo insisted Brazil will meet the challenge of hosting the event for the first time since 1950.
Preparations have been marred by months of speculation, given credence by regular Fifa reports, of some of the 12 stadiums spread across the vast country of 200 million would struggle to be ready.
In Costa do Sauipe, both Fifa and Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo have admitted that three stadiums are running late and another three will only be inaugurated in January, with Fifa finally dropping a firm December 31 deadline.
Last week’s fatal accident which left two construction workers dead at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo has also increased fears as to Brazil’s ability to stage the jamboree.
An investigation is currently under way into the accident in Sao Paulo, due to stage the June 12 opening match featuring the hosts and five-time champions.
But Bebeto and Ronaldo, ambassadors for the event, and former player and coach Zagallo stressed Brazilians should be proud of their country’s efforts.
“Everyone wants to come to the World Cup, where they will see the passion of Brazilians for football,” said Ronaldo, who scored both goals in the 2002 final win over Germany and who has been travelling the world as a Brazil 2014 ambassador.
“A month’s delay won’t jeopardise things. There is no chance an arena won’t be ready – all will be ready for the World Cup.”
Bebeto, 1994 champion with the Selecao, reinforced the same message.
“We have struggled hard to get where we are. And where we are is the result of the struggle and efforts of all Brazilians,” said Bebeto, shrugging off criticisms of preparations by fellow former star-turned-politician Romario.
Zagallo, the first man to win the World Cup as a player (1958 and 1962) and as a manager (1970), echoed those sentiments.
“I think Brazil will live up to the challenge and cope with the task,” said Zagalo, 82, who recalled being a 19-year-old hopeful when Brazil lost the 1950 final in Rio’s Maracana, setting for next year’s final, to Uruguay – a loss that prompted days of national mourning.
Fifa, holding an executive committee meeting later Thursday, has insisted here that the venue scheduling problems will be overcome and that Brazil will ultimately deliver.
The draw at the northeastern Brazil resort of Costa do Sauipe will see world football’s governing body draw the groups in a complex system designed to separate teams from the same continent as far as possible.
But some groups will contain two European sides, with the Old Continent having 13 of the 32 qualifiers.
The presence of all eight former champions – only surprise package Bosnia will be making their debuts – means there could be one or even two “groups of death” – Brazil could theoretically face two European former champions in the shape of for example, France and Italy.
England coach Roy Hodgson indicated where a team plays could be more important than whom they face.
The team drawn second in Brazil’s group faces a marathon travel schedule.
After playing Brazil in the June 12 opener in Sao Paulo, that team will then have to fly almost 3 000km to Manaus in sultry Amazonia for their next match.
They would then face a similar haul to equally sticky Recife in the northeast for their third group game.
Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke will oversee the draw – the ceremony starts at 1600GMT – and will be joined on stage by eight former star players, including Englishman Geoff Hurst, the only man to score a World Cup final hat-trick.
Also appearing will be 86-year-old Alcides Ghiggia, the last survivor of Uruguay’s shock win over Brazil in the deciding match of the 1950 World Cup at the Maracana Stadium.
Meanwhile, Fifa has dismissed suggestions that a decision to choose light-skinned model Fernanda Lima and her white TV presenter husband Rodrigo Hilbert to host the event instead of dark-skinned pair Camila Pitanga and Lazaro Ramos was racist.
Brazilian officials have stressed the country’s racial diversity and multicultural identity are among its major selling points.
Away from the ceremony, one headache – albeit one at arm’s length – will come from the anonymousbrasil pressure group, who have called on people angry at the estimated $11bn cost of staging the event to show their opposition.
The pressure group urged supporters: “If you don’t agree with corruption take to the streets of Salvador on the sixth and tell people.”