SAO PAULO (AP) – “Tudo bem” – all good – as the Brazilians say.
With a nationwide spasm of excitement but also tear gas, the country that sees itself as the artful soul of football but is conflicted about spending billions of dollars on hosting its showcase tournament kicked off one of the most troubled World Cups ever.
It roared to life Thursday with a 3-1 win for the home team in a stadium barely readied on time for the first of 64 matches in 12 cities.
The end of Brazil’s 64-year wait for the World Cup to return to the country of Pele wasn’t all parties and samba. There were protests in five host cities and chants against President Dilma Rousseff. But it wasn’t close to the chaos that wracked last year’s tuneup tournament, the Confederations Cup, when hundreds of thousands poured into the streets.
After a funky opening ceremony featuring J-Lo in low-cut sparkling green and dancers dressed as trees, Brazil’s beloved national team, the star-studded Selecao, made an earnest if not brilliant start to the serious business of re-conquering planet futebol. Already the only nation with five world titles, a sixth victory in the July 13 final could assuage much – but not all – public anger about spending $11.5 billion on the tournament.
Brazil’s first opponent was a resilient but ultimately outclassed Croatian side. The Itaquerao Stadium, which suffered chronic delays and worker deaths in its construction, was a sea of buttercup yellow, the color of the national team. Brazilian fans expect this crop of stars to deliver not just victory but football as art, the “Jogo bonito” – the beautiful game – that was the hallmark of great Brazilian teams.
The inaugural game had everything aficionados love – passion, drama, spectacle, goals and a refereeing controversy that immediately set fingers wagging on Twitter, showing how players, officials and organizers must live under the microscope of unprecedented social media scrutiny.
Brazilian fans call themselves “torcidas” – derived from the Portuguese word “to twist” and evoking how football puts them through the wringer. Brazil made a nightmare start. Marcelo looked stunned, the crowd of 62,103 wailed and grown men watching in bars let out howls of despairing laughter when the Brazilian defender scored an own-goal that gave Croatia an unlikely 1-0 lead after just 11 minutes.
“I’m very emotional, happy, and happy that it’s over,” said spectator Ricieri Garbelini, visibly drained. “I was nervous for five minutes at the beginning, and at the end.”
The mood lifted when Neymar lived up to his hype and tied the game for Brazil in the 29th minute, unleashing an ear-splitting roar from the crowd and across the nation. In the rundown city of Indaiatuba, a two-hour drive from Sao Paulo, tattooed men in undershirts celebrated by pounding on restaurant tables. Fans watched the game wearing shirts bearing the name of the 22-year-old.
Even football-loving Pope Francis got a touch of World Cup fever. He sent a video message on Brazilian television before the match, saying the world’s most popular sport can promote peace and solidarity.
Demonstrating the love-hate relationship Brazilians have with developed with this World Cup, the stadium crowd made hairs stand on end with its rousing rendition of the national anthem, but also chanted against Rousseff and FIFA, the governing body of football.
The crowd booed Rousseff again when the stadium’s jumbo screens showed her celebrating Neymar’s second goal – scored from the penalty spot in the 71st minute. He thrust his arms in the air and the nation did likewise.
The Croatians were furious that the Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura, let himself be hood-winked by Fred. The Brazilian striker won the penalty by making it look as though he’d been hauled down by Croatian defender Dejan Lovren.
“If that was a penalty, we should be playing basketball,” said Croatia coach Niko Kovac. “That is shameful, this is not a World Cup referee. He had one kind of criteria for them and another for us.”
Oscar scored the third for Brazil, and the celebration was on.
But despite repeated promises from government officials that Brazil would be ready, there were problems at the stadium: The lighting failed in one corner, flickering off, on, off and finally back on again after the late-afternoon kickoff. Brazilian organizers blamed a fault with the power supply and said it would be looked at before the next match.
There were protests in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte. Police fired canisters of tear gas and stun grenades to push back more than 300 demonstrators who gathered along a Sao Paulo highway. Police also used tear gas against protesters in central Rio.
“I’m totally against the Cup,” said protester and university student Tameres Mota. “We’re in a country where the money doesn’t go to the community, and meanwhile we see all these millions spent on stadiums.”
AP writers Janie McCauley in Sao Paulo and Joji Sakurai in Indaiatuba, Brazil, contributed.
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