South Africa may use fewer stadiums than planned to host the 2010 soccer World Cup because of growing fears that some venues will not be finished on time.
Tournament organizers have held discussions with FIFA, the game's governing body, about reducing the number of stadiums from 10 to eight.
But if the number of stadiums is scaled back, it will prompt renewed international concern about South Africa's ability to cope with such a big event and could damage the image of both the host country and the first World Cup to be held in Africa. Officials in the Johannesburg-based 2010 Local Organising Committee believe the drastic step would save money and guarantee that other grounds that are due to be built or refurbished by 2010 are finished on schedule.
News of the fallback plan comes after months of speculation that delays in building new infrastructure, the lack of public transport and high crime rate in South Africa might prompt FIFA to move the 2010 event to Australia, the US or even England.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter has made clear his impatience with the slow progress South Africa has made towards renovating five existing stadiums and constructing five new ones. Earlier this month he warned organizers to press ahead with more urgency, and said they "should bring a little bit of fire to their preparations."
The cost of getting 10 stadiums ready has already risen from an original estimate of ?150 million (US$293.8 million) to ?500 million to ?600 million, and some projects have suffered delays in planned construction. FIFA's fears increased last month when the organizing committee announced that the five planned new venues would not be ready for the 2009 Confederations Cup, the traditional warm-up event which World Cup host nations hold the year before. If the number of stadiums is cut, it is likely that two of the five new ones will be scrapped.
FIFA have privately told the South Africans that they accept that soccer's four-year jamboree could be staged in as few as eight stadiums.
"It would be pretty straightforward to play more World Cup games at fewer venues without compromising the quality of the event," a senior FIFA official said. "It hasn't been done that way at any previous World Cup, but staging a game every few days between 11 June and 11 July 2010 at stadiums that are ready is fairly easy."
FIFA have not discussed the eight stadiums option publicly, officials say, because they do not want the organizing committee to assume that they only have to deliver that number.