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Confederations Cup to open Saturday after protests

RIO DE JANEIRO – The Confederations Cup begins following protests that turned violent in three of Brazil’s biggest cities, while builders were still slapping cement on stadiums.

The eight-nation tournament, a test of Brazil’s organizational ability a year before the World Cup, starts today in the capital Brasilia when the Selecao hosts Asian champion Japan. It ends June 30 in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium.

The quadrennial tournament is held every four years – always one year before the World Cup – among the champions of each soccer confederation, the World Cup champion and the host.

Workmen still were applying cement onto walks, attaching glass panels and painting at several stadiums as kickoff approached, but FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he was not worried about the late preparations.

While the paint and cement dry, tournament officials have been monitoring street protests, handling team complaints and hoping Nigeria arrives on time.

Nigeria’s players threatened Thursday to strike and not travel to Brazil because the country’s soccer federation suddenly cut players’ bonus payments.

Nigeria’s players, in Namibia for a World Cup qualifier, missed their connection to Brazil and were set to arrive today or Sunday, leaving them little time to prepare for their opener Monday 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.

Brazil has dominated global soccer for years, but has slipped in the last decade, with Spain winning the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup.

Brazil, a rising economic power which still suffers from some of the problems of a developing nation, should be able to handle the Confederations Cup with ease ahead of two massive challenges.

Next year it hosts the World Cup in 12 cities across a country similar in size to Europe, and then in 2016 Rio will host the Olympic Games.

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