By Mike Collett
MANAUS, Brazil (Reuters) - The mayor of the World Cup host city described as a "crime-ridden hell-hole" by a British newspaper said its correspondent was badly misinformed and invited critics to come see it for themselves.
Manaus mayor Arthur Virgilio said he was aware of the contents of the story in the Daily Mirror which warned English fans they would be risking their lives by visiting the city where England play Italy in their opening Group D match on June 14.
"I have not read it but I know exactly what is in it," he told reporters in the Amazon state capital where four matches will be played next year.
"I have a great admiration for the United Kingdom and have been to London many times, but I have never had the honor, unfortunately, of reading the Daily Mirror newspaper.
"But whoever wrote the story was very badly misinformed and painted a totally unbalanced view of this city.
"Whoever wrote that story and anyone else who wants to write about Manaus can come and I will show them the good parts as well as the bad."
The other games hosted by Manaus are Cameroon v Croatia, United States v Portugal and Honduras v Switzerland.
Virgilio said, as far as he knew, no media in those countries had described his bustling, modernizing city as a "hell-hole."
He added that he had spoken to the British Ambassador in Brazil and that they would discuss all the issues about Manaus raised in England and by the article when the Ambassador visited his city.
"I will also visit England in the very near future and hold a press conference there to speak about Manaus and the World Cup," Virgilio said.
"Like every city in the world, we have our problems, but, despite what the article says, there are not poisonous snakes and tarantulas roaming around the streets and falling from the trees.
"Yes, we are situated in the middle of the Amazon jungle, but we live in harmony with the jungle and we are an urban city with a 344-year history."
The Daily Mirror's story continues a history of pre-World Cup scaremongering by British tabloids.
Before the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, British tabloids warned that dogs were rounded up on the street daily and cooked that night in posh restaurants.
They warned of gangs of neo-Nazis roaming city streets singling out English fans to beat up ahead of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. In 2010, the tabloids played up the dangers of rape and murder at the South Africa finals.
The Mirror story described Manaus as "murderous" and one of "the most dangerous places on earth."
The city was "a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden hell-hole," the paper said, although it did concede that 70 per cent of the 945 homicides last year were drug-related and took place in lawless 'favelas', the "no-go areas" where "armed and drug-crazed thieves" roamed the streets.
Virgilio said: "Crime has dropped by a third this year, we have modern police cars with modern equipment patrolling the city 24 hours a day, seven days of the week, every day of the year."
Miguel Capobiango, the co-ordinator of UGP Copa, the World Cup project in Manaus, also referred to the article in a separate briefing earlier in the day at the Arena Amazonia stadium where the World Cup matches will be played.
"A lot of the negative reports that we are getting actually stem from domestic problems, not drug-related issues as such.
"There are drugs all over the world, and drug-related problems all over the world, and Manaus isn't any different.
"But I am sure that the people who come here will feel very secure, it is a very warm and welcoming city, especially due to this hot temperature."
Of perhaps more realistic and immediate concern for both the overseas fans heading for Manaus and the city's authorities is the readiness of the stadium.
Hundreds of construction workers are currently maintaining a building schedule of 20-hour days and the 42,000-seat structure with an iron framework inspired by the traditional basket made by indigenous Indians, was a hive of activity on Tuesday. Men were on the roof, in the building itself, while others were bolting seats outside in the stands.
Although jackhammers, mechanical diggers and drills created a cacophonous industrial chorus, the 605 million reais ($262 million) project is still weeks behind schedule.
Capobiango, however, said it would be "ready enough" by January 15 to stage an opening match between two of the city's local sides with a crowd of around 10,000.
Virgilio promised much more.
"No matter what people outside Manaus might say, the city will be ready with open arms and we will dazzle the world with our friendliness and hospitality, and we will meet every single one of FIFA's requirements to play a great part in the World Cup," he said.
(Editing by Ian Ransom)