A prayer for Brazil as World Cup kicks off
Sao Paulo, June 12, 2014
By Brian Winter and Kieran Murray
After years of construction delays and budget overruns, the football World Cup kicks off in Brazil today (June 12) as foreign fans pour in for the tournament.
Brazil's national team plays 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.
Brazilians say the country will rally as soon as the action starts, especially if their team justifies its billing as the favourite 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," he said.
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 winning it.
The main risk, for both fans and the government, appears to be violent street demonstrations.
Protests and labour 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 eased.
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 protests erupted.
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 pm (2000 GMT).
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.
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." - Reuters