By Mike Collett
NATAL, Brazil, Dec 9 (Reuters) - The sun glints off the emblematic white roof of Natal's Arena Das Dunas while down on the ground a sign reads "26 days to go" to completion and a mechanical digger is demolishing the workers' barracks.
Inside, and on the 22,000 square metre concourse outside, the remaining construction crew are putting the finishing touches to one of the most attractive of the 12 Brazilian stadiums to be used for next year's World Cup finals.
Anyone remotely interested in the tournament knows that, in the main, the building and renovating of the stadiums has been dogged by controversy, protests, over-running costs and projects falling way behind schedule.
The one in Natal, like six others due to be ready this year, had a deadline of Dec. 31 and should stage its first match on Jan. 12.
In this north-eastern tourist resort, the city fathers are already looking well beyond next year's four first-round group matches between Mexico and Cameroon, Ghana and the United States, Japan and Greece and Uruguay v Italy.
They believe the stadium, with its arched roofing redolent of the coastal dunes that attract thousands of tourists every year, can be a catalyst for urban regeneration and revive the fortunes of the city's two ailing local clubs, America and ABC.
Arthur Couto, the stadium's marketing director, was quick to block any suggestion that the 400 million Brazilian reais ($180 million) facility will turn into a white elephant after the World Cup, as some local critics predict.
"That will not happen," he told Reuters through an interpreter in the blazing heat at nine o'clock in the morning.
"We will have 42,000 seats in here for the World Cup, 32,000 afterwards. ABC and America will both play matches here.
"We will not just have football matches here, but concerts, conventions, other events. We knocked down the old dilapidated stadium here, people did not want to come to it.
"But we have proved that more people will come to a great stadium, mothers and fathers will bring their children. It will be safe, the city will be proud of it."
Much the same was said in South Africa four years ago with stadiums built in, among other places, Polokwane and Nelspruit, towns without great soccer traditions or big clubs.
Many of the stadiums used for the 2010 finals have lost money and they are not the great landmarks of civic pride they were trumpeted to be.
One of the big concerns of the protesters who took to the streets throughout Brazil during the Confederations Cup in June, was that the money used on World Cup stadiums could have been better spent on improved health care facilities, schooling and local transportation.
The question is particularly relevant in Natal, where social needs are strong despite the relative prosperity tourism brings.
With a superb near-Equatorial climate, white sandy beaches and 250 kilometres of unspoilt dunes that stretch almost as far as the Rio Grande do Norte's state border with neighbouring Ceara, some ask why the city needs a stadium for two average clubs playing in the lower divisions of Brazilian soccer.
Alexandre Ferreira Mulatinho, the vice-president of the Rio Grande state government, said it made perfect sense.
The state government owns the stadium and he said the funding, organised by "sensible loans" by stadium constructor OAS which can be paid back to the development bank over the next eight to 12 years, was not onerous.
"It is a question of civic pride of course, but the clubs can grow and this really is a football-mad city that has been without top teams for too long," the official said.
"The World Cup has given cities in Brazil the chance to grow and develop and while there will always be critics, the majority of people recognise the benefits.
"I am speaking for Natal, but I believe we symbolise a golden opportunity for the whole country."
Nothing is quite as easy as ABC, however; The opening match between the two local sides could still be postponed, depending on president Dilma Rousseff's schedule or any delays in completion. (Reporting by Mike Collett, editing by Alan Baldwin)
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