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Delays and missed deadlines: The World Cup’s unfinished stadium conundrum

If you want to put fans in seats to watch the World Cup, you’re going to need actual seats to do it. Less than a month away from the Dec. 31 FIFA-imposed deadline for Brazil to deliver all 12 of its tournament venues, half are still unfinished, with three of those having no realistic shot of wrapping up before February.

This wasn’t what FIFA wanted, pushing against opportunities for test events and starting to make the world wonder if FIFA will need to reroute the tournament’s opening match. But with all expectations still set that all 12 stadiums will be fully ready by June, FIFA is saying there’s no cause for great concern. Not yet, anyway.

But there is still plenty of delay and with delay comes long-term concern and immediate logistical headaches.

Brazil already has a suspect record of stadium delivery, with funding issues and worker strikes holding up nearly all 12 venues at some point during the construction process, forcing the country to miss deadlines in delivering the stadiums to FIFA for this past year’s Confederations Cup—only two of the first six stadiums met were on time.

In the end, though, all six stadiums were ready in time to at least host the tournament, even if test events were canceled or postponed. But those six stadiums are still the only left completed and even they came with doubts about if rushed delivery forced crews to cut corners on construction quality or skimp on promised amenities in the multi-million-dollar cathedrals to soccer. Long-term, those potential shortcomings could prove costly in future maintenance or even potentially early closure.

Of the half-dozen stadiums still under construction, three are expected to wrap up by the deadline—Arena Amazonia in Manaus; Estadio das Dunas in Natal; and Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre—but even those haven’t sailed smoothly. And that doesn’t even mention the tragedy and delays at Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba and Arena de Sao Paulo (Arena Corinthians) in Sao Paulo where two workers died in a Nov. 27 construction accident.

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Initial reports indicated that the damage done when a crane collapsed into the stands at the venue in the Itaquera neighborhood was minimal and workers were allowed back to the site—away from the accident area—on Monday. A new report on the damage is expected this Friday, with an updated timeline of when the stadium will finish.

The 66,000-seat Sao Paulo venue is scheduled to host six matches in all, including a semifinal and the tournament’s opening match on June 12, which includes Brazil. We won’t know until Friday if that tournament-opening match remains a realistic goal, although early reports indicate the stadium will be ready in time. Still, hosting the opening match brings added scrutiny and security concerns, something test events help iron out.

Unfortunately, worker deaths aren’t limited to just Sao Paulo. Construction deaths have also occurred at the now-complete Estadio Nacional in Brasilia and in Manaus.

While tragedy hasn’t struck in the southern coastal city of Curitiba or the inland city of Cuiaba, delays sure have. The 43,000-seat Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, located in the geographic center of South America, saw a legal squabble over the seat provider lead to its delay.

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Worker safety issues forced a judge to evacuate crews from the 41,000-seat Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, just part of the construction woes that have plagued this renovation. Work was progressing so slow on a project that was originally scheduled for a December 2012 completion that plans for a retractable roof have been put on hold until after the World Cup. FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke said to not expect Curitiba before the end of February, at the soonest.

While FIFA remains confident—at least publicly—that the three heavily delayed stadiums will still turn up in time for the tournament, there’s always the danger that fast-tracking construction in the final months leads to issues and pushes against the two or three test events FIFA likes to hold in each. The delays also force FIFA to rework construction schedules for temporary facilities that offer media, hospitality, merchandising and other support services during the international event.

Delays in the Amazon rainforest, home of the 43,000-seat Arena Amazonia, were almost understandable. Throughout the construction process crews had to creatively figure out ways to get needed supplies into the far northwest outpost well away from Brazil’s main population. The renovations at the 50,000-seat Porto Alegre stadium—including a new metal roof to cover the stands, ramps and turnstile areas—and the construction of the new 42,000-seat Natal venue and were also slow going. All three venues should wrap up this month.

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Four of the country’s five largest World Cup venues (more than 60,000 capacity) are ready for play.

• The first venue delivered to FIFA—an entire year ago—was Estadio Castelao in the northern city of Fortaleza. A remodeling of the 1973-built stadium will seat roughly 64,000 spectators for six matches, including a quarterfinal.

• What was once a 200,000-capacity monstrous venue that hosted the 1950 World Cup Final, Maracana in Rio de Janeiro has been completely rebuilt. The single-bowl structure now seats just shy of 80,000 and will host seven matches at the 2014 World Cup, including the final on July 13.

• With the original stadium leveled, the new Estadio Nacional de Brasilia—also opened in late 2012—will be the tournament’s second-largest, holding 71,000 spectators for its seven matches, including a quarterfinal.

• Over 62,000 fans can watch each of the six matches, including one of the semifinals, at the completely overhauled Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte.

• Welcoming about 55,000 spectators for its six matches, including a quarterfinals, the brand-new Arena Fonte Nova replaces a shuttered stadium in Salvador.

• The brand-new Arena Pernambuco in Recife opened in May 2013 and will seat close to 46,000 during its five matches.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.
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