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By Pedro Fonseca
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - For the first time in two-and-a-half years, a ball will be kicked at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium on Saturday after an almost complete makeover which many fear will cost the spiritual home of Brazilian football its popular appeal.
The 900 million reais (290 million pounds) refurbishment has been dogged by delays, labour disputes and protests and the controversy is set to drag on long after Saturday's exhibition match between teams led by former Brazil forwards Ronaldo and Bebeto.
The new stadium will be reduced to around two fifths of its original capacity while plans to build a shopping centre and car park alongside at the expense of an existing sports complex have led to a judicial battle and fears of elitism.
Furthermore, only the interior is completely finished as workers race against the clock to complete the paving and landscaping of the surrounding area in time for the June 2 friendly between Brazil and England, the first official match.
"This re-opening represents the return of football to Rio de Janeiro," former Brazil playmaker Zico, one of the country's finest players, told Reuters. "During this period that the Maracana was shut, the Cariocas felt like orphans."
The Maracana, built for the 1950 World Cup, will take centre stage again when Brazil hosts the competition for a second time next year. The final is among the seven matches scheduled to be played at the famous arena.
It will also be one of six venues for the Confederations Cup in June which is regarded as a test event.
Soccer's governing body FIFA had demanded that the stadium be ready last December, but various problems have delayed the opening by nearly five months. Even now, there is still a lot of work to be done.
The area outside the stadium has still to be paved while remodelling of the rest of the complex will only be completed next year, provided it does not get bogged down in a legal quagmire.
A shopping centre and car park will be built on the site of the athletics stadium and Olympic-sized swimming pool, prompting athletes who use the facilities for training to accuse authorities of elitism.
The public attorney's office attempted to suspend the tendering process for the work, because of the demolition of the facilities as well as a local school plus a neighbouring building which houses indigenous groups.
However, the Brazilian government won an injunction allowing the process to continue and is expected to announce the winning bid in the next few days.
"There are a number of arbitrary demolitions......which destroy the character of a complex which serves sport, leisure, culture, health and education of the population," said Gustavo Mehl, representing a local pressure group.
"(It) transforms the Maracana into a type of shopping centre, aimed at tourists and the richer classes of the population,"
It is the third and by the most complete refurbishment of the stadium since 1999 and only the outside shell, protected by a preservation order, remains of the original stadium.
Inside, the two-tiered circular stadium has been replaced by a single-tier oval which will hold 78,000 fans, well short of the 200,000 crowd reported to have seen the final match at the 1950 World Cup.
During the stadium's closure, Rio de Janeiro's top-flight teams have been forced to stage home games at the inconveniently located Joao Havelange stadium and attendances have slumped.
Flamengo have suffered the most as their average home attendance was slashed from around 40,000 in 2009 to 12,000 last year.
The small businesses around the stadium have also been hit and are worried that a new shopping centre would steal their customers.
"I thought about closing," said David Pontes, owner of a so-called "Dirty Foot", or hole-in-the-wall, bar near the stadium.
"The Maracana has always supported our family but things will never be the same." added Pontes, who has seen his turnover slump by 80 percent.
"Even when it re-opens, it will be a different public. Who will come to a Dirty Foot bar if the Maracana itself is full of restaurants and bars?"
"It will become a rich person's playground."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ed Osmond))