RIO DE JANEIRO – Just seven months before the World Cup in Brazil, a major soccer conference in Rio de Janeiro was called off for what organizers said was "ongoing civil unrest," a claim denied by the state government.
The cancellation is another blow to Brazil and World Cup organizers after the Confederations Cup — a World Cup warmup event — was targeted this year by protesters upset with Brazil's poor public services, high taxes and lavish spending on the World Cup and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The protests, which at their peak saw 1 million take to the streets across Brazil on a single day, have grown smaller, but more violent and show no sign of going away.
Most Brazilians seem to support the World Cup, but want the billions spent on big sports events channeled into programs that help decrease Brazil's stark social inequality.
Soccer's governing body has said it is preparing for violence at the monthlong tournament, and has expressed confidence that police and soldiers can handle it. However, the country's sports minister has downplayed the chance of violence or protests.
The Soccerex conference was to have been attended by top soccer executives and managers from Nov. 30 to Dec. 5 at Rio's Maracana Stadium.
Soccerex said the Rio state government "took the political decision to withdraw their support." Soccerex said it would take legal action seeking "substantial compensation" for breaching contractual obligations.
Soccerex's statement came as senior executives from FIFA and the 2014 World Cup organizing committee were at the World Travel Market convention in London to update the industry on preparations.
In a brief statement, the Rio de Janeiro state Sport Secretariat said that Rio was perfectly able to "welcome and ensure safety during any event" held in the city.
Earlier Tuesday in London, FIFA marketing director Thierry Weil said the conference cancellation was not an indication of heightened security fears ahead of its showpiece that opens June 12 and ends July 13.
"We do not believe this will have any influence in any way or form on the organization of the FIFA World Cup," Weil said.
Former Brazil star Ronaldo, a member of the World Cup organizing committee, suggested the decision to cancel Soccerex was an overreaction.
"The people are going out onto the streets to show their displeasure about how they were treated for so long, so they wanted change," Ronaldo said through a translator at the London briefing.
He said canceling the event exaggerated the threat, and said the World Cup would help Brazil.
"I am in favor of any nonviolent protests," Ronaldo added. "Brazilians are tired of being ignored for so many years and want the government to respond to that weariness."
AP Sports Writer Rob Harris contributed to this report from London.
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