RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Less than 48 hours before the month-long soccer World Cup kicks off in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff defended the cost of hosting the tournament, vowed to punish corruption and urged her compatriots to give visiting fans a warm welcome.
Following a year of protests over the roughly $11 billion Brazil is spending to host the World Cup, Rousseff said in a televised address on Tuesday that investments in stadiums, airport terminals and other infrastructure would provide long-term benefits for the country.
"We did this, above all, for Brazilians," she said, repeating an argument she has put forth that the public works implemented for the tournament "won't leave in suitcases along with the tourists."
The tournament, which kicks off on Thursday when Brazil faces Croatia in São Paulo, is the most costly World Cup since the competition began 84 years ago.
While residents across the 12 host cities complain that many promised development projects are delayed, or never materialized, Rousseff sought to underscore what has been accomplished. She rejected the "false dilemma" that World Cup spending somehow diminished investments in health, education and other public services.
Rousseff, who seeks a second term in October, noted that public spending on health and education were among the budget lines that have grown the most during her presidency. In the three years since Brazil started building World Cup stadiums, she said, the country has spent 212 times as much on health and schools as it has on arenas.
Earlier on Tuesday, officials at FIFA, soccer's governing body, sought to deflect criticism that the organization was making huge profits at the expense of Brazilian taxpayers.
Because of the cloud of corruption that often hangs over FIFA, and a long history of graft in Brazil itself, many Brazilians assume that the high costs of the tournament, and the delays and unfulfilled promises, are the result of wrongdoing.
Rousseff said the country is auditing all of the spending and promised to punish any corruption. "If any irregularities are proven," she said, "those responsible will be punished."
Reminding Brazilians of the country's success on the soccer pitch, and the warm welcome its national team has received elsewhere, Rousseff urged her compatriots to be hospitable to foreign fans. "Let's return the generosity," she said.
(Reporting by Eduardo Simoes; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)