BRAZIL BEAT: Religiously watching the World Cup

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Associated Press

Posted on June 20, 2014 at 7:02 PM

Updated Friday, Jun 20 at 9:04 PM

SAO PAULO (AP) — They say that football is a religion in Brazil. So when the World Cup is being played on home soil, actual religions have to make some adjustments.

Even before embarking on the traditional prayers to welcome the Jewish sabbath, Rabbi Ruben Sternschein had an important announcement to make: Monday's upcoming evening service at the Congregacao Israelita Paulista synagogue was being pushed back 45 minutes so that congregants could make it in time after Brazil's game against Cameroon.

Only then was it time for the congregation to begin its usual Friday night service.

— By Aron Heller — www.twitter.com/aronhellerap

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DEFENDING ROONEY

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Don't blame Wayne Rooney for England's early World Cup exit. That's the message from his Manchester United teammate, Robin van Persie, who knows firsthand that when a team plays badly, critics often fault the squad's biggest star.

No fair, says Van Persie, who has often said he moved from Arsenal to Manchester United in part so he could play alongside Rooney.

"I don't think you can blame him for scoring one goal, working his socks off and missing three chances by inches — because it was inches," the Netherlands captain told reporters at his team's training camp. "He gave his all for his country, like he always does. He's a great player, a great goal scorer, so I don't think it's fair on him to criticize him that much."

— By Mike Corder — www.twitter.com.mikecorder

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URBAN OASIS

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — Belo Horizonte's municipal park is a different world from the noise and grit of the city.

It's not the Amazon, but lush tropical plants and stands of bamboo line narrow, winding paths in the 45-acre park, making it feel almost as though it's the middle of a rainforest. The park, which opened in 1897 and is based on French landscaping, is sandwiched between two major avenues. But traffic is barely audible.

With more than 50 different tree species, the park is a gem in the middle of a congested city. The narrow paths eventually open up into larger spaces, and there are three artificial lakes, including one where visitors can rent rowboats. The park is a popular spot on any given day, with families and runners mixing with strolling couples and World Cup tourists.

The park is also famous for its architecture. The Oscar Niemeyer-designed Palacio das Artes is just outside the main gates of the park and is Belo Horizonte's most prominent cultural center. Built in 1970, it's made up of theaters, art galleries, a cafe, a bookstore and a shop with handicrafts made in the state of Minas Gerais, whose capital is Belo Horizonte. At the moment, two of the center's art galleries contain a huge exhibit of renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, who was born in a town in Minas Gerais.

A new architectural project is currently taking place inside the park. Designed by local architect Gustavo Penna, a new multipurpose structure is being built. Most of it will be open air and will contain a large stage for events, concerts and theatrical performances.

— By Frank Griffiths — www.twitter.com/fgriffithsap

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GOOD ADVICE

MOGI DAS CRUZES, Brazil (AP) — All of 21, Romelu Lukaku is already full of coaching advice for Manchester United on how Belgium teammate Marouane Fellaini should be played.

Fellaini is coming off a mediocre season after he was the top transfer for the team, which was marred by injury and the unsuccessful coaching stint of David Moyes.

If only they had taken the advice of Lukaku on how to maximize the midfielder's talents.

"The way he was used last year wasn't the way he should be used in a team," Lukaku said.

"You should play him higher up the pitch. Not really as a No. 6 but as a No. 8," he added, referring to the central midfield position and one that is farther upfield. "That is his best role because he scores goals and he covers a lot of distance as well."

That's where he usually plays for Belgium, and Fellaini proved his value in the World Cup opener against Algeria by using his bulk and power to get Belgium back in the match with the first goal in what eventually turned into a 2-1 victory. Voila!

Next step: Convince new Manchester United coach Louis van Gaal, who is still working the Dutch bench in Brazil. Not the most obvious man to take advice from young players.

—By Raf Casert — www.twitter.com/rcasert

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FAN MAIL

TERESOPOLIS, Brazil (AP) — Brazilian players received nearly 6,000 fan letters before the team's practice Friday.

Two mailmen went to the team's training camp outside Rio de Janeiro to deliver them.

"This is one of the most gratifying things in our lives," defender David Luiz said at a news conference. "There's nothing better than being able to receive these letters with the support from our fans."

Luiz thanked the mailmen for their "hard work," saying that "without you we wouldn't be able to receive this support."

The mailmen posed for photos with Luiz and defender Marcelo before their news conference.

The Brazilian federation has set up a special post office box for the letters sent to the national team.

After receiving the letters, Luiz and Marcelo also had an unusual way to decide which player would talk first — they played rock, paper, scissors.

— By Tales Azzoni — www.twitter.com/tazzoni

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EYES ON ICE

CAMPINAS, Brazil (AP) — The most scrutinized knee in the World Cup was on display again Friday as Cristiano Ronaldo practiced with his Portugal teammates. And that was all anyone could talk about at the team's base in Campinas, with scores of cameras zooming in on the reigning world player of the year's every move, twitch and gesture.

Team officials sighed when asked about the status of Ronaldo, who has been struggling with a leg injury since before the tournament. Even for a team used to having all the attention on its star player, the media madness appeared to be weighing on Portugal.

At the team's news conference, the majority of the questions were about Ronaldo, even though he wasn't the one answering them.

Teammate Helder Postiga said he was sick of it.

"After the training today there were 10 players applying ice on themselves. We used three bags of ice! That cannot be a reason to create so many rumors about Cristiano," he said. "Cristiano is training; he's fine. He is going to be important for us. He is going to help the team. We all have a common goal. Ice is just an exercise, something normal after training. You need to take it more naturally."

— By Aron Heller — www.twitter.com/aronhellerap

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POKER STAR

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Max Kruse isn't playing for Germany at the World Cup, so he found another international competition — the World Series of Poker.

The Borussia Moenchengladbach forward finished in third place and won $36,494 this week in one of the Las Vegas tournament's 65 events.

Kruse, 26, played in three World Cup qualifiers for Germany but has since fallen out of favor.

WSOP spokesman Seth Palansky says it was Kruse's first time playing the 2-7 Draw Lowball variant of poker, so he got a 30-minute tutorial from fellow German and poker star George Danzer before making his strong showing.

The seven-week series features an estimated 80,000 players. Organizers expect to give out $200 million in prize money during the events.

— By Michelle Rindels — www.twitter.com/RindelsAP

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Associated Press reporters will be filing dispatches about happenings in and around Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. Follow AP journalists covering the World Cup on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_Sports/world-cup-2014

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