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Brazil to probe FIFA in racism case ahead of World Cup draw

A man is silhouetted as he makes his way past the main entrance of FIFA headquarters, the Home of FIFA, in Zurich October 20, 2010. REUTERS/
A man is silhouetted as he makes his way past the main entrance of FIFA headquarters, the Home of FIFA, in Zurich October 20, 2010. REUTERS/

By Andrew Downie

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Just four days before the draw for the 2014 World Cup, FIFA faced yet another embarrassment when a Sao Paulo prosecutor opened an investigation into possible racism by soccer's world governing body.

A Sao Paulo state prosecutor has asked FIFA and the company it hired to organize Friday's draw to explain why it chose two white-skinned actors to present the televised show instead of two black-skinned actors.

Two Afro-Brazilians had been suggested as possible hosts but were overlooked in favor of light-skinned model Fernanda Lima and her white husband Rodrigo Hilbert, a TV presenter, news magazine Veja reported without saying how it obtained the information.

"I opened the investigation due to the suspicion of a crime of racism on the part of FIFA, or by the company they selected to organize the show, GEO Eventos," prosecutor Christiano Jorge Santos told Reuters, adding that, if the report is true, he will seek to open criminal proceedings.

Lima and Hilbert do not represent the racial make-up in Brazil - a country where half the people declare themselves either black or dark-skinned - "and so the change was not justified," Santos added.

Santos asked FIFA, GEO Eventos, Veja and TV Globo, the broadcaster reported to have suggested the black couple, well-known soap opera actors Lazaro Ramos and Camila Pitanga, for more information about the choice.

The GEO Eventos website was under maintenance and additional efforts to reach spokespeople at the company were unsuccessful.

NO VETO

In a statement sent to Reuters late on Monday, FIFA said it "never vetoed anyone" and pointed out that Pitanga herself denied she was invited to host the event.

"The selection of Fernanda Lima and Rodrigo Hilbert was mainly based on the positive experience made during the launch of the Official Emblem and the Preliminary Draw," the statement said.

Lima and Hilbert participated in the launch of the official emblem of the 2014 World Cup in Johannesburg three years ago and Lima was also one of the presenters of the preliminary, or qualifying, draw in Rio in 2011.

"FIFA's stance against any form of discrimination and racism which is even enshrined in our various regulations amongst others is well known," the statement added.

The organization also pointed out there will be black faces on show during the event that precedes Friday's draw to decide who plays who in next year's 32-team tournament.

The participants, including hip hop artist Emicida, veteran samba star Alcione and samba singer Margareth Menezes, all of whom are Afro-Brazilian, "represent the cultural and musical diversity of Brazil," FIFA said in a statement last week.

STADIUM, COMMENTS

The investigation is just the latest in a string of embarrassments to hit soccer's world governing body.

Some 18 months ago FIFA secretary geneal Jerome Valcke infuriated Brazilians when he suggested their slow pace of building work might be improved if they got "a kick up the backside."

Last week, part of the stadium that will host the tournament's opening match collapsed when a crane toppled over and two workers were killed.

The accident at Sao Paulo's World Cup stadium may delay its opening until February, but FIFA has said it is not worried about the venue being ready on time to host the tournament's opening game in June.

The last six of the 12 stadiums to be used in the tournament are slated to be ready by the end of the year but it now looks likely that more than half of them will be handed over behind schedule.

Transportation projects in at least five cities have been cut back or shelved entirely depriving Brazil of what should have been the lasting legacy of the tournament.

(Editing by Guillermo Parra-Bernal and Rex Gowar)

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