(Adds government tour of site with journalists))
By Brian Winter and Anthony Boadle
SAO PAULO/BRASILIA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Brazil’s government on Monday urged officials in the city of Cuiabá to do whatever necessary to get its stadium ready in time for this year’s World Cup soccer tournament, following a prosecutors’ report that an October fire at the venue caused far more damage than previously disclosed.
Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo downplayed the severity of the Oct. 25 fire at Cuiabá’s Arena Pantanal, which he described as “small,” but he acknowledged that prosecutors in Mato Grosso state, where the stadium is located, have demanded a new, independent evaluation of its safety following the report of structural damage there.
The state government gave reporters a tour on Monday of the area where the fire hit, and no signs of damage were apparent.
An independent consultant was also due to visit the Cuiabá stadium on Monday and report his findings back to Brazilian officials and FIFA, soccer’s governing body, which has said it was unaware of any structural damage caused by the fire.
Prosecutors have said they will not allow games to be played at the stadium until they are certain it is structurally sound. A test match between Brazilian soccer teams is slated for early April, while the first World Cup match to be played in Cuiabá is set for June 13, between Chile and Australia.
“We recommended to the (stadium‘s) owner, which is the state government, and the companies building it that they adopt all measures so that the stadium can be ready” for the World Cup, Rebelo told reporters, without offering further details.
His comments, the first by a senior federal official since Reuters disclosed the contents of the prosecutors’ report on Saturday, came at a news conference in Brasilia with FIFA’s secretary general, Jerome Valcke.
Valcke deferred a question about the stadium to Rebelo.
The questions over the Cuiabá stadium have added to Brazil’s struggles to get ready for the World Cup, which starts on June 12. Stadiums have been plagued by construction delays and accidents that have killed six workers.
FIFA is expected to announce this week whether another stadium, in the southern city of Curitiba, will be dropped from the tournament because of construction delays there.
The 18-page report on Cuiabá’s stadium by the Mato Grosso state Public Ministry, an independent judicial body similar to the district attorney’s office in the United States, was prepared in December but had not previously been disclosed to the public.
The Mato Grosso state government has repeatedly denied that the fire caused structural problems and said on Sunday that the damage has since been fixed.
Mauricio Guimarães, the state official overseeing the stadium’s construction, said last week that no reports have shown structural damage. Prosecutors have said, in turn, that the state government “lacks credibility” because it continues to downplay the consequences of the fire.
On Monday, Guimarães said the stadium’s structure was sound. And when asked to explain why the state prosecutor’s report was different from his own finding, he said there may have been a “communication problem” with the Public Ministry that led to the differing accounts of the fire.
On Monday, Reuters obtained previously undisclosed color photos from the Public Ministry’s report. The photos show decomposed concrete and other damage to pillars that form the arena’s core structure, according to the report’s text.
Reuters previously had access to a printed black-and-white version, in which the photos did not show the damage as clearly.
“The photos in our report clearly illustrate that the (state) government is wrong when it says the fire did not cause structural damage to the stadium,” said Clovis de Almeida, part of a special unit of Public Ministry prosecutors monitoring the state government’s preparations for the World Cup.
The fire occurred in the basement level of one of the two main grandstands at the Arena Pantanal, which remains under construction. Cuiabá is the state capital of Mato Grosso in Brazil’s soy belt and is one of 12 cities where games are scheduled to take place.
The Public Ministry’s report includes a photo showing widespread chipping of a concrete pillar that is part of the “core structure in the area affected by the fire,” according to an accompanying text written by an independent local civil engineer.
Another photo on the same page, which the report says is of a “wall/beam in the core structure,” shows “the exposed rebar due to advanced decomposition of the concrete.”
“It is emphasized that the loss of resistance of these elements could compromise the overall stability of the construction,” the report says.
It also includes a diagram showing that the “area most affected by the fire” includes nearly half the stadium’s basement level, including three of the building’s six main support beams.
The report says the damage to the stadium’s steel structure is “less severe” and “does not compromise the building’s overall stability.”
The Public Ministry is scheduled to undertake its own independent inspection of the fire site on Thursday. Federal prosecutors said last week they would be launching their own investigation of the fire based on the state body’s findings. (Additional reporting by Jeferson Ribeiro in Brasilia; Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)