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Lula talks sports with Brazilian astronaut

Written by: Staff

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Apr 6 (Reuters) Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva likened the nation's first astronaut to late Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna and told him to come home soon to support his local soccer team.

''When you left on the space trip, you reminded me of Ayrton Senna waving the national flag,'' Lula told Marcos Pontes yesterday in a live link-up with the International Space Station.

Lula is famous for his allusions to sports in speeches -- always welcome in soccer-crazed Brazil.

Waving the Brazilian flag after a winning finish was Senna's trademark. The three-time Formula 1 world champion, who is still considered a national hero in Latin America's largest country, died in a racing accident in 1994.

''In few moments of Brazil's history have we been so proud of a Brazilian as we are of you,'' said Lula, adding that while some in Brazil accused his government of spending too much on the space mission, it was an important step for the nation.

Brazil paid about 10 million dollars for Pontes' trip.

Pontes, an Air Force pilot, took a Brazilian flag and a national soccer team shirt with him to the station when he arrived there on Saturday with a Russian-US crew aboard a Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft. The flag was on the wall behind him during the conversation with Lula.

''We are looking forward to your return. Certainly you'll go to Brasilia and then to Bauru because your team, Noroeste, is not faring very well,'' Lula said as Pontes laughed. Pontes is from Bauru in Sao Paulo state and the town's team is third in the Sao Paulo state championship.

Pontes is due to return to Earth on Saturday after a short mission with the outgoing Russian-US crew.

He is conducting several experiments in orbit, including one designed by 12 and 13-year-old Brazilian students to study the effects of weightlessness on plant germination.

Reuters PG VP0703

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