FIFA defends kickoff times at 2014 WCup in Brazil

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ZURICH (AP) - Players' health in Brazil has not been jeopardized to please European broadcasters, FIFA's top 2014 World Cup official said Friday after some matches were scheduled in early afternoon heat.

"The health of the player and the quality of the game is on the top of the list before any other consideration - and definitely no commercial consideration," FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said.

FIFA detailed group-stage kickoff times Thursday with tropical cities Natal, Recife and Salvador each hosting two matches at 1 p.m. local time - noon EDT and 6 p.m. in prime family viewing time in central Europe. Those cities on the northeast coast can expect temperatures around 90 degrees in June.

Pressed by Brazilian reporters at a news conference, Valcke made a passionate defense of the FIFA-approved schedule.

"I can't even imagine why and how you could think that we are making decisions thinking about the television," he said.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter recalled that the World Cups of 1970 and 1986 in Mexico scheduled matches at "high noon" in hotter temperatures than Brazil and at altitude.

Most kickoff slots in the early stages of the month-long tournament are at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. (noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. EDT), meaning the latest matches start at midnight in central Europe - other than a June 14 game in Manaus that begins at 3 a.m. in Europe (9 p.m. EDT). Starting the first match later would have pushed the third match of each day into late-night air times in Europe, which has 13 of the 32 teams taking part.

Valcke said broadcasters would only be happy with good soccer. FIFA's financial report last year showed that European networks paid a combined $1.29 billion for rights to the 2010 World Cup - around 30 percent of FIFA's total income for the four-year financial cycle.

FIFA had also consulted its medical committee before agreeing the match schedule, Valcke said.

In the western Amazon rainforest, Manaus will host two of its four matches at 3 p.m. local time (3 p.m. EDT), probably in high humidity.

Valcke acknowledged that Brazil was "lucky" to get group-stage kickoffs at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., in Sao Paulo, Fortaleza and Brasilia. The host nation cannot play in the iconic Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro until the July 13 final.

"The match schedule has not been organized just for Brazil to win this World Cup, but it is true they are lucky and playing in very good conditions," he said.

The 2014 World Cup match schedule has been the subject of debate after Brazilian soccer leaders and politicians overruled Valcke's original wish to stage matches in four regional clusters to minimize travel.

Instead, teams and fans will be sent hundreds of miles around the country playing in different climates.

"Whatever we do is never right," Valcke said, wryly. "We have made a decision to play in all Brazil because that was the request of Brazil."

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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