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By Mary Milliken
CUIABA, Brazil, June 15 (Reuters) - In Cuiaba, they like to say there are two seasons: winter and hell.
That's not the kind of weather descriptor likely to draw hordes of visitors to this agricultural boom town, Brazil's warmest state capital. The place endures temperatures in excess of 45 degrees C (113 F) in summer, also known as "hell."
But the World Cup soccer tournament now playing out in the Cuiaba "winter" (a relatively mild 33 C, or 91 F) is giving this former backwater of 550,000 people the international stage it has long sought.
After years of construction upheaval and widespread disappointment over unfinished work, Cuiaba's inaugural match on Friday between Chile and Australia at the new, sleek Pantanal arena filled locals with pride.
"Now people know Cuiaba," said Aroldo Rodrigues, who sells the region's famous river fish at the Cuiaba port market. "The arena is really beautiful. The image we projected was great. People have had fun and it's been safe."
It's been a long slog for Cuiaba, which like Manaus, had to lobby hard to be chosen as a World Cup venue. Originally, the world soccer governing body FIFA wanted just 10 venues, but Brazil wanted to include two cities that would promote its unique natural treasures, the Pantanal wetlands near Cuiaba and the Amazon rainforest around Manaus.
Both cities have taken their share of knocks for being too hot, too far to travel to and too unprepared to receive teams and tourists.
Mato Grosso state police reported 12 cases of minor theft involving tourists near the stadium on Friday night and are investigating two cases of attempted rape, one involving an American.
But visitors to the World Cup say the earlier bad press was perhaps undeserved.
"I thought Cuiaba would be much less developed and more rural, but it's not like that," said Francisco Quesada, 33, a schoolteacher from Chile who came to watch his team.
Quesada also said Cuiabanos, as the locals are known, "are so happy to be hosting the World Cup, they have been very affectionate with us."
CUP 'WILL CHANGE CITY FOREVER'
At night, foreign fans and locals pour into squares like the Praca Popular, drinking cold beers and caipirinhas well into the night. The party scene ebbs and flows with a laid-back vibe, like the River Cuiaba that snakes around the city.
"We are very hospitable people," said Bete Campo de Souza, 55, a fruit-seller at the market who, like many here, came to Cuiaba decades ago, drawn by the economic promise of the frontier's rich farm lands. Mato Grosso state is now the top Brazilian producer of grains, like soy and corn, as well as beef.
"Cuiaba is not poor, but it can be hot," Campo de Souza said, calling the summer months "unbearable," in her only criticism of her adopted land.
While Cuiaba may show the world these days that it is an economic success surrounded by natural wonders, some think the premier soccer event and its four matches here make the city look better than it really is.
"We were looking at the stadium and it didn't even seem like it was our city," said dry goods merchant Kleverson Araujo, 21, who watched the first game on TV. "We had so many problems here."
But Araujo concedes the city's biggest event ever is an historic moment.
"I think it will change the city forever," he said. "I hope it brings more people here, because we really need it." (Reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Dan Grebler and Frances Kerry)