SAO LOURENCO DA MATA, Brazil - Overgrown grass, shacks and a farm animal's head skewered on a post mark this spot in northeastern Brazil that in four years is meant to house a state-of-the-art stadium fit for the 2014 World Cup.
As South Africa prepares to kick off its World Cup next month, football-crazy Brazil is coming under fire for dragging its feet and missing deadlines on preparations for the event four years from now, which include building five stadiums from scratch and carrying out major overhauls of others.
Of the 12 stadiums that need to be ready across the huge South American country, only three met a May 3 deadline set by football world governing body FIFA for construction work to have begun, according to the Portal Copa 2014 Web site run by Brazil's Engineering and Architecture Union.
"The country is still playing on defense, without any moves towards goals," the Web site said after conducting a study of the progress in April. "Delays in the tender processes, court disputes, lack of definition of projects and financial difficulties are still paralyzing the construction work."
Plans for a 600 million-real ($340 million) overhaul of Rio de Janeiro's iconic Maracana stadium are among those most behind schedule, with the project yet to be bid out to construction companies.
Jerome Valcke, the general secretary of football's world governing body FIFA, sounded the alarm this month, saying that Brazil "was not walking along the right path" and that he had been worried by the latest progress report.
Brazil's government, which says that stadium construction is the responsibility of municipalities and states, has raised the prospect of a reduced number of sites for games if the infrastructure is not ready.
"I imagine it would be possible to do the Cup with six stadiums," Planning Minister Paulo Bernardo was quoted as saying by the Agencia Estado news agency on Tuesday.
Such a reduction would be an embarrassment for Brazil and a blow to cities in poorer regions such as the northeast, where residents are counting on a major economic lift from the new infrastructure and hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors.
The World Cup and the Olympic Games in Rio two years later are seen as key drivers of Latin America's largest economy in the coming years.
The month-long tournament is forecast to inject 183 billion reais into the economy over 10 years, from new infrastructure such as expanded airports as well as tourism, according to a study commissioned by the ministry of sport.
At the planned stadium site near Sao Lourenco da Mata, about 30 minutes by car from the northeastern city of Recife, residents say they have not heard from authorities, even though the official start date for the work was in mid-May.
"So far the government has said nothing about when the work will start and what will happen to the people here," said Vandelson Gomez de Souza, a a 23-year-old farmer who along with dozens of other families scratches out a living in the area.
Nearby restaurant owner Edmundo Severino de Lima was also in the dark. "How are they going to start work here if they haven't informed anyone? The people here are just continuing to wait," he said, as a horse grazed lazily nearby.
The beachside city of Natal further north has also yet to start work on or bid out its planned 45,000-capacity Dunes Stadium. Fernando Fernandes, the state's secretary for World Cup preparations, blamed bureaucracy and a change in project structure for the delay but said it was now back on track.
"You have to get approval from the prosecutor's office, from the planning secretary, have a budget, publicize the proclamation, wait 40 odd days ... it's a long process," he told Reuters at an investment conference in Natal.
The 2014 World Cup was a cause for guarded optimism among real estate investors at the conference.
"I don't think there's a concern it won't be ready. But is there a concern it won't be ready as well as it could? Then yes there is possibly a concern. From what I see, people need to get moving quickly," said Martin Bellamy, the British chief executive of Salamanca Capital, which is active in Natal through a partnership with a major property developer.comments