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World Cup 2014 | Brazil vs Croatia to kick off football carnival

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-06-2014 Laurent Thomet

Sao Paulo/Zagreb: Brazil kicks off the Fifa World Cup 2014 on Thursday hoping to unite the football mad country after a chaotic seven-year build-up plagued by violent protests and several scandals allegedly involving Fifa and its president Sepp Blatter. The 32-team extravaganza gets under way in the teeming megacity of Sao Paulo, where the host nation’s beloved “Selecao”, led by Neymar, faces Croatia in the Corinthians Arena at 1500 GMT (1.30am IST Friday) before 61,600 supporters and a worldwide television audience of several hundred million.

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 World Cup in 1978.

Thursday’s Group A match signals the start of a month-long football fiesta taking place against backdrops, which showcase Brazil’s breathtaking diversity, from the picture postcard beauty of Rio de Janeiro to fading colonial grandeur of Manaus, deep in the Amazon.

After years of apathy and simmering resentment at the tournament’s record $11-billion price tag, Brazilians were grudgingly embracing World Cup fever in the final hours before the big kick-off.

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari urged compatriots to unite behind his players as they launched their bid for glory. “To all Brazilians I want to tell you the time has arrived. This is our World Cup,” Scolari said in an eve-of-tournament rallying cry.

The popular Scolari, who masterminded Brazil’s last World Cup win in 2002, said his team were seven matches from immortality. “The first step is Croatia,” he said. “After that we have six steps that we want to go up if we want to win the World Cup.”

World Cup fever

As the last of the 32 teams who will contest the greatest prize in football arrived in Brazil, mounting evidence of World Cup fever was visible. Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue has been illuminated in the colours of all nations taking part while Brazilian flags fluttered from cars, bars and apartments as excitement built. In Rio de Janeiro, some of the 600,000 foreign fans travelling to Brazil thronged the famous Copacabana beach, staging impromptu football matches.

Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio was among the many overseas fans flying into the country, taking in the tournament from the luxury of a mega-yacht offshore. Twelve government leaders or heads of state will be among the VIPS at Thursday’s opening ceremony.

But even though more Brazilians are sporting the yellow jersey of star forward Neymar, discontent continues to bubble. Scattered protests are planned in several host cities during the tournament. And as Sao Paulo subway workers late on Wednesday voted against a repeat of the strike which plunged the city into gridlocked paralysis last week, airport workers in Rio announced a partial 24-hour walkout. “We’re Brazilian and we continue to root for Brazil, but it’s our duty to fight for workers rights,” union leader Rui Pessoa said.

Public rage

According to latest reports, Sao Paulo police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets on Thursday to break up an anti-World Cup protest. Dozens of protesters had gathered near a Sao Paulo subway station with a red banner reading “If we have no rights, there won’t be a Cup.” They said they planned to march as close as possible to Corinthians Arena, the city’s World Cup stadium, but police forcefully broke them up before they could start.

The incident is among the many that has plagued arguably football’s biggest show. The multi-billion-dollar cost of the World Cup has angered many in a country, which has chronically 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. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff warned that her government will not tolerate a repeat of last year’s protests. “We will guarantee the security of Brazilians and of those who come visit us,” she said.

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. Fifa president Sepp Blatter has responded to the scandals by shoring up his power base. On Wednesday, Blatter signalled his intention to seek a fifth four-year term next year, despite calls for him to step down. “My mandate will finish next year...but my mission is not finished,” he said to boos from sections of the Fifa Congress.

Fifa secretary-general Jerome Valcke meanwhile told French radio station France Inter on Thursday he was confident after years of cajoling the organizers to speed up delivery of the stadiums that things were 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.

Economy needs more than a World Cup boost

The cost of hosting the games, along with some expensive promises made by a president seeking re-election, may turn any athletic triumph into a Pyrrhic victory. Brazil’s economy is sputtering. Seventy-two percent of Brazilians don’t like how things are going in their country, which comes as little surprise after more than a million of them took to the streets last year to protest price hikes, poor services and the billions the government was throwing at arenas and airports.

Many of Brazil’s foreign investors are sanguine, however. As the July/August issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine reports: “Companies as diverse as Forever 21 Inc., known for cheap and cheerful fashions for young women, and luxury automaker Bayerische Motoren Werke AG have put down stakes in the past year.”

Brazil ranks seventh in the world for attracting foreign direct investment, according to McKinsey Global Institute, and only five cities in the world are home to more large foreign subsidiaries than Sao Paulo.

Croatia gripped by World Cup fever

The “biggest match in Croatia’s history” read one newspaper front page on Thursday as the small Balkan nation, gripped by World Cup fever, gears up for its tournament opener against hosts Brazil.

Cafes across the country have installed new TV screens on terraces and decorated in the team’s red and white colours, while live broadcasts will be held in the main squares of big towns and cities.

Giant posters of the Croatian team—nicknamed the “Fiery Ones”—stare out from shop windows in the capital Zagreb, especially star midfielder Luka Modric and striker Mario Manduzkic, and shopkeepers are dressed in red-and-white jerseys. “It will be a real drama,” said Hrvoje Tokic, manager of the popular Maraschino bar in downtown Zagreb, whose terrace is plastered in posters of the players.

It’s not just patriotism driving the excitement, of course. Bar owners can expect a boost of 30% in their drink sales during major sporting events. “We expect good business tonight. These games mean that one evening can be worth as much as a good weekend,” said Tokic.

Croatia needs a boost. Its economy is entering sixth year of recession, with unemployment topping 22%. AFP

Bloomberg contributed to this story.

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