Brazil's national team hosts Croatia in the opening match at a
newly built stadium in Sao Paulo whose cost and late delivery came
to embody the troubled World Cup preparations.
Brazil is seen by many fans around the world as the spiritual home
of soccer and hundreds of thousands will descend on the country for
the month-long tournament, but until now the enthusiasm among
Brazilians has been muted.
Many are angry over the $11.3 billion spent on hosting the World Cup
when basic social services are poorly financed.
Massive street demonstrations rocked the country last year and
although they have faded in numbers recently, officials expect a
hard core of a few hundred people to try to block traffic to the
stadium on Thursday. That could cause violent clashes with police.
Brazilians say the country will rally as soon as the action starts,
especially if their team justifies its billing as favorite to win
the tournament for a record sixth time.
"Just wait until Brazil starts winning. Then you'll see people in
the streets," said Rogerio Souza, a fan in Sao Paulo, although he
warned failure would cause more discontent.
"Brazilians only count titles. No one cares about second place. If
they don't win the Cup at home, you'll see the criticism rain down,"
President Dilma Rousseff dismisses complaints about the heavy
spending and delays in preparing stadiums and airports, and is
betting Brazil will put on a show on and off the field.
"What I'm seeing more and more is the welcome given to the teams and
the happiness of the Brazilian people with our team," she said in a
speech on Wednesday.
Yet the list of possible problems is long. In fact, hosting a
successful World Cup may ultimately prove harder for Brazil than
The main risk, for both fans and the government, appears to be
violent street demonstrations.
Protests and labor strikes are planned in the 12 host cities,
including a 24-hour slowdown by some airport workers in Rio de
Janeiro although the threat of a long subway strike in Sao Paulo has
Some businesses in Rio, the venue for seven Cup games including the
final, had boarded up windows and doors by late on Wednesday in case
Officials privately expressed fears that protests and traffic
problems could mean some fans might still be stuck outside the Arena
Corinthians in Sao Paulo when the opening match starts at 5 p.m.
The government has decreed a partial holiday for Thursday to help
ease congestion. Still, a long list of VIPs including 10 heads of
state and senior officials from world soccer body FIFA mean traffic
will still be complicated.
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The stadium itself has been a source of anxiety.
Not only was it delivered six months late at a cost of $525 million,
about $150 million over budget, but because of the delays Thursday's
game will be the facility's first at full capacity. That's a big
no-no in the field of logistics and a violation of FIFA's normal
protocol for World Cup games.
"I'm praying that nothing goes wrong," said Lizbeth Silva, a
clerical worker at a Sao Paulo school. "You hear about all these
problems, but you still want to root for Brazil."
The stakes for Brazil go well beyond the World Cup itself.
Rousseff is running for re-election in October, and a rough
tournament would likely cause her popularity, already under duress,
to fall further. Polls show she currently holds a lead of about 10
percentage points over her likely rival if the vote goes to a second
round, as most expect.
Any major logistical problems and unrest could also further dent
Brazil's reputation among investors, which has suffered since a
decade-long economic boom fizzled under Rousseff.
At least one element is expected to cooperate on Thursday: the
weather. Forecasters expect clear skies and a high of 75 degrees (24
C) - warm for the southern hemisphere winter.
Brazil's team, led by its exciting 22-year-old star striker Neymar,
is heavily favored to beat Croatia.
As the tournament progresses, the fervor of foreign fans, hordes of
whom have already descended upon host cities, could also help ease
any tension among Brazilians themselves.
Outside Rio's Maracana stadium on Wednesday, Brazilians cheered and
whistled as an SUV with a Colombian flag draped atop it stopped at a
"We wouldn't miss this for the world," said the driver, adding that
he and his three passengers left Colombia by road nearly three weeks
(Additional reporting by Paulo Prada in Rio de Janeiro and Brad
Haynes and Esteban Israel in Sao Paulo; Editing by Todd Benson and
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