BRAZIL BEAT: Pele, Maradona impersonators compete

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The street performing mime, Daniel Gonzalez, left, who is dressed to resemble Argentine soccer great Diego Armando Maradona, looks back at Marcio Pereira, dressed up as Brazilian soccer great Pele as he controlls the ball in front of Maracana stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 11, 2014. The World Cup soccer tournament starts Thursday. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Just outside the Maracana Stadium's main entrance, the debate rages on: Who is the greatest football player of all time?

Over here is Argentinian Daniel Gonzalez, wearing Diego Maradona's 1986 World Cup uniform and a wig with his trademark black curls and performing the midfielder's waltzing warm-up routine.

Nearby is rival Marcio Pereira da Silva, dressed in Pele's No. 10 Brazil jersey and juggling a ball with his knees and shoulders.

In the run-up to Thursday's World Cup opener, the two street artists have been competing head-to-head — for the pocket change of fans from around the world, who flock to Brazil's Temple of Soccer, below the statue of 1958 captain Hilderaldo Bellini lifting above his head the first of the country's five championship trophies.

"Maradona and Pele are making peace," Silva said with a smile, stretching his arm around Gonzalez in front of a small crowd that included Mexican soccer fans in tall sombreros, well-dressed street preachers and a sunburnt cyclist who pedaled 3,500 kilometers from Argentina. "The fight is over. Now it's time to party."

The 35-year-old Gonzalez traveled by bus from his hometown of Las Toninas, a beach resort south of Buenos Aires where he works as a leather artisan, to attend the tournament. On a good day, he said he's able to take in 100 reais ($45), enough to pay for his food and lodging at a local hostel.

While he hopes to get inside the Maracana to see Argentina play, his biggest ambition is to meet his idol, the real Maradona, who is in Rio providing commentary for Venezuela's Telesur network.

Silva, 50, says he began entertaining tourists with his freestyle juggling skills after an attempt at a professional playing career failed.

"I wasn't lucky. I had an injury. I tried very hard, but it didn't happen, so I started coaching kids and doing acrobatics," he said.

— By Joshua Goodman —



SAO PAULO (AP) — American midfielder Jermaine Jones doesn't have to worry about how he'd celebrate if he scores against Germany on June 26. He won't.

The 32-year-old, who was born in Frankfurt, played three exhibitions for the Germans in 2008. But he was among the final cuts by coach Joachim Loew from the European Championship roster, and Jones switched allegiance to the United States, where his father was born.

Jones made his U.S. national team debut in October 2010 and has gone on to score twice in 42 appearances: against Jamaica in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup and against Scotland in a 2012 exhibition.

"I think it's in respect. I grew up in this country. They gave me a lot. I have my first cap for the national team in Germany. I'm happy, too, that Joachim Loew gave me this chance," Jones said Wednesday. "So I will not celebrate if I score. But if somebody else scores, they can celebrate."

Jones said he scored against a former team once in his professional career. Playing for Eintracht Frankfurt on Feb. 10, 2007, he had an own goal at Bayer Leverkusen that put the hosts ahead in the 39th minute of a 2-2 tie.

— By Ronald Blum —



CURITIBA, Brazil (AP) — Four years ago, the small South African town of Potchefstroom strung up welcome banners and draped the red and yellow Spanish flag from lampposts when the European champions came to train for the World Cup.

In the southeastern Brazilian city of Curitiba before this year's tournament, you wouldn't know the reigning champs are preparing on the outskirts of town. Curitiba also hosts four World Cup matches, but there is little indication in this city of 1.8 million.

"Look at that, not even a single flag on the street," said Emilio Mendonza, 47, as he stepped out of his store in the historic center for a glance.

Curitiba is littered in Brazilian green and yellow, but there are otherwise few hints of the World Cup.

"It's a fragile time to have the World Cup, a fractious moment in Brazil," said Mendonza, who sells lamps, desks and accessories. "Normally you would call up your friends to go out and watch the game, but everyone's kind of keeping to themselves and not wanting to show any excitement. It's better to just keep quiet."

Spain wraps up Group B play against Australia at the Arena da Baixada on June 23. Iran plays Nigeria, Honduras faces Ecuador, and Russia meets Algeria in the other matches here.

The cold, winter weather certainly doesn't help in heating up a population filled with anxiety surrounding potential protests.

"It's a difficult time. People want to get excited, but at the same time there's this feeling you have to hold back, as you never know what the other person is thinking, if they agree with the Cup being here," said Bruna Andrade, who was selling locally made beach shoes in a city market. "It's unusual."

— By Paul Logothetis —



SAO PAULO (AP) — American midfielder Alejandro Bedoya made a point to find the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Liliana Ayalde, as she visited the team's World Cup home base.

Both Colombian-Americans, they were eager to trade a few pleasantries after the U.S. held an open training session at Sao Paulo Futebol Club on Wednesday.

Bedoya asked to pose for a photo. Ayalde left with an autographed postcard. She will attend the Croatia-Brazil World Cup opener on Thursday, then each of the U.S. Group G matches, starting Monday night against Ghana in Natal. There, she will be joined by Vice President Joe Biden.

"I was having a longer chat with one of the players who has a similar background to myself, so that was exciting," Ayalde said. "We thought we'd share our own heritage. That is a special thing."

Ayalde, a career diplomat with more than three decades of experience and a former ambassador to Paraguay, was appointed last year. She arrived in Sao Paulo on Wednesday morning. Ayalde also made a trip from her Brasilia base for the Americans' January training camp.

Ayalde's two daughters, Stefanie and Natalia, will take part in the second U.S. game — responsible for carrying the ball and flag before kickoff against Portugal in Manaus on June 22.

Some 200,000 tickets have been sold to U.S.-based fans, Ayalde said.

"We're prepared with the embassy and our different consulates to make sure that we serve our American citizens as best we can," Ayalde said.

— By Janie McCauley —


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