SAO PAULO: Brazil was nervously gearing up for the start of the World Cup on Thursday with the host nation preparing to launch the month-long carnival as scattered protests broke out just hours from kick-off.
The 32-team extravaganza gets under way in Sao Paulo, where Brazil faces Croatia at 5 p.m. (2000 GMT) before 61,600 supporters and a worldwide television audience of several hundred million.
Thursday’s Group A match signals the opening of a four-week football fiesta which follows a troubled seven-year build-up marred by construction delays and public anger over the record $11 billion cost of the event.
But with hours to go, scattered protests and strikes broke out in several of the 12 cities which will host World Cup games.
Riot police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets at anti-World Cup protesters in Sao Paulo, the epicenter of violent nationwide demonstrations last year which brought chaos to the Confederations Cup.
Dozens of protestors gathered near a metro station with a banner reading: “If we have no rights, there won’t be a cup.”
In Rio de Janeiro, striking ground staff workers blocked a road leading to the city’s international airport, snarling traffic before being broken up by police.
Other cities were bracing for possible unrest later in the day. In Belo Horizonte, shopkeepers boarded up windows and drew down steel shutters.
The air of anxiety came after Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari urged compatriots to unite behind his team.
“To all Brazilians I want to tell you the time has arrived. This is our World Cup,” Scolari said on Wednesday.
World Cup fever
Despite being regarded as the spiritual home of football, Brazil has been slow to embrace World Cup fever.
Excitement has built slowly in the days leading to the event, with increasing numbers of Brazilian flags seen flying from cars, bars and apartment blocks.
Some of the 600,000 foreign fans travelling to Brazil have gathered in a fanzone on the famous Copacabana beach, staging impromptu football matches.
But while more Brazilians are sporting the yellow jersey of star forward Neymar, discontent continues to simmer.
The multi-billion-dollar cost of the World Cup has angered many in a country which has under-funded health and public services and rampant violent crime.
Rage at poor public services morphed into a nationwide movement during last year’s Confederations Cup test event, with deadly clashes rippling across the nation.
For the World Cup, a vast security blanket is being deployed, with 150,000 soldiers and police on duty along with 20,000 private security officers.
Football’s governing body FIFA begins the tournament under mounting pressure over allegations of corruption linked to its decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
“My mandate will finish next year… but my mission is not finished,” said FIFA president Sepp Blatter to boos from sections of the FIFA Congress on Wednesday.
FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke meanwhile told French radio station France Inter on Thursday he was confident that after years of cajoling the organizers to speed up delivery of the stadiums things were now ready.
“Overall the stadiums are ready,” the 53-year-old Frenchman said. “Now it is more a problem of organization than security.”
For all the off-field problems, the tournament itself has the makings of a classic.
Reigning champions Spain are bidding to make history by becoming the first side from Europe to win a World Cup in South America, which last hosted the tournament in 1978.
Vicente del Bosque’s side have dominated international football for the past six years, winning two consecutive European championships either side of their 2010 World Cup triumph.