By Brad Haynes
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The World Cup finals in Brazil next year may be as trying for United States soccer fans as it is for their team.
U.S. players learned on Friday they will face elite opponents Germany, Ghana and Portugal at the start of the tournament. The other bad news for fans? The venues hosting these matches mean long, expensive flights through some of the vast country's most overcrowded airports.
Far-flung games from the northeastern coast to the Amazon rainforest may force the U.S. team to fly about 9,000 miles in three round-trip flights between the matches and their training facility in Sao Paulo.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said the itinerary they are stuck with is "the worst of the worst."
Fans will also book some serious mileage if they want to catch the team's first three games. American demand for early ticket sales was the highest of any country outside Brazil, according to FIFA.
Brazil's outdated airports and restrictions on foreign airlines will only magnify the cost and inconvenience of air travel - the only reasonable option given the distances and the dilapidated roads available.
Two domestic flights between the first three U.S. matches could alone cost $1,000 or more, if travelers snap up the deals that websites offered on Friday.
But prices are already climbing.
Between Friday morning and afternoon, when it was revealed that highly ranked Germany would play back-to-back in Fortaleza and Recife, the cost of flying between those matches shot upward. Airlines raised prices as much as 30 percent for the cheapest tickets and over 50 percent for the most popular flight times.
Fans face the choice of pouncing on rising ticket prices now or waiting and hoping that airlines will add more routes by December 20 - the deadline for them to submit their World Cup flight plans. Airlines have said repeatedly that they want to optimize their stretched networks for the tournament.
FOREIGN CARRIERS NOT IN PLAY
The scarcity of affordable flights is a legacy of Brazil's barriers to foreign airlines. Of more than 100 countries that have signed an open skies agreement with the United States, Brazil is one of only a handful that have not yet put it into practice.
Brazil's aviation minister has also ruled out letting foreign airlines operate domestic flights during the tournament. The possibility was floated by the country's top tourism official as a way to relieve the pressure of an estimated 600,000 foreign visitors and three million local fans at the World Cup.
To make matters worse, there are no direct flights from the United States to the Americans' first group match against Ghana, scheduled for June 16 in Natal. The city sits on the far eastern tip of Brazil - closer to Africa than North America - and travel from New York through Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro will take 15 hours or more.
From there to the faceoff with Portugal, in the Amazonian capital of Manaus, there is only one direct, eight-hour flight per day, run by Gol Linhas Aereas. Rivals' flights take over 10 hours with at least one layover.
The airports in Natal and Manaus - cities with populations of about 1 million and 1.8 million, respectively - are both running beyond their capacity, according to official data.
The United States' third group match is a showdown with Germany, about eight hours back to the east, in the beachfront city of Recife on June 26, the last day of the group phase.
The players will decide if that is the end of the road for travel-weary U.S. fans.
(Editing by G Crosse)