By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Upgrades to Brazil's crumbling soccer stadiums ahead of the 2014 World Cup promise a safer, cleaner and altogether more pleasant environment for fans but the luxurious new grounds come at a price - quite literally.
Brazilian fans are already complaining about high ticket costs and a debate has begun over whether some supporters will be priced out of venues that boast cinemas, shops, restaurants, and even automatically flushing toilets.
"I fear that the new stadiums being built for the World Cup will make football more elite," Tostao, a former World Cup winner with Brazil in 1970, said in a recent newspaper column.
"Different priced tickets need to be sold in order to avoid that. Those who want to be waited on can pay for it. More humble fans have a right to pay reasonable prices and get safety and comfort."
The debate comes with the World Cup just 17 months away and the first new stadiums beginning to open. Three arenas were inaugurated in December, two of which, in Belo Horizonte and Fortaleza, will be used for the Confederations Cup in June and World Cup in 2014.
A third, Gremio's 60,000-seat stadium in Porto Alegre, was also opened although it is not scheduled to be used in either tournament.
The opening of the first of the new, more plush stadiums is adding to the excitement for soccer fans as the World Cup approaches but steep hikes in ticket prices for regular games are leaving many with a sour taste.
The cheapest tickets to see Cruzeiro at the Mineirão stadium in Belo Horizonte will cost 50 reais ($24.50) next year, the club announced in December. Lowest prices at the Independencia arena, where Cruzeiro played their games while the Mineirão was being reformed, were 20 reais.
The cost of membership schemes that offer discounted tickets - the Brazilian equivalent of season tickets - are also going up. Cruzeiro fans who paid 60 reais a month last season are now being asked to cough up 100 reais. The 80-real tickets now cost 150 reais and the 120-real tickets are on offer for 200 reais.
"Prices have doubled and so people who earn the minimum wage won't be able to go to all the games," said Cruzeiro fan Andre Meira. "When you factor in transport and everything else it is going to be difficult for them."
Other clubs destined to play in new or reformed stadiums are also increasing prices.
At Gremio, some prices will go up, the club acknowledged, while Fortaleza, one of the teams that will play at the reformed Castelão stadium, said it would raise prices by between 33 percent and 50 percent.
Jorge Motta, the club's director of football, is nevertheless confident supporters will pay and say Brazil's recent economic gains have deepened fans' pockets.
More Brazilians have more money thanks to steady economic growth and government assistance policies that have helped lift over 30 million people out of poverty and into the consuming middle classes.
"There are three million people living in Fortaleza and half of them support Fortaleza so there are more than enough people willing and able to pay what we are asking," Motta said.
Others pointed out that while fans will pay more they will get an upgrade from the dilapidated stadiums that are used today.
"The old stadiums don't offer comfort or services or visibility and the new ones do," said Cruzeiro's commercial director Robson Pires. "Even though ticket prices will go up the value for money is still there."
"There is a concern about fans being priced out," he acknowledged, "but the club is working to avoid that problem through discounts and our membership scheme. Fans who buy season tickets help the team and get discounted tickets. The fans can do the math."
The price hikes come at a time when stadium crowds are already shrinking in Brazil, raising the risk of leaving more fans in front of their TV sets instead of filling the stands.
The average crowd at Brazilian first division matches fell 8 percent last season to less than 13,000, according to Stochos, a sports consultancy. The average ticket price in the first tier in 2012 was 24 reais, Stochos said.
Pluri, another consultancy, said ticket prices have gone up 52 percent over the last four years, more than twice that of inflation, which rose 22 percent over the same period.
Currently, only around 13 percent of clubs' income comes from ticket sales.
That percentage should rise as fans feel emboldened to watch games in safer, and more comfortable surroundings.
Just as in the Britain during the 1990s, when new all-seater stadiums were built and ticket prices rose exponentially, Brazilian football appears on the cusp of a revolution.
But a similar risk ensues. Concessions must be made if the game of the people is not to lose its soul.
"The risk is that fans will start behaving like they are at the theater, all seated nicely, well behaved, with no jumping up and down and no showing any excitement for the game or their club," Tostao said.
"The real fans, the ones that truly love their club, can't be priced out."
($1 = 2.04 Brazilian reais) (Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Frank Pingue)