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Performers take part in the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup at the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo on June 12, prior to the opening Group A football match between Brazil and Croatia. (AFP)

SAO PAULO, June 12, (Agencies): Brazilian police and protesters clashed on Thursday before the opening game of the World Cup and five people were injured although the country finally burst into life with flag-waving fans flooding into bars and street parties. The tournament has been largely overshadowed so far by construction delays and months of political unrest with many Brazilians furious over $11 billion being spent to host the Cup in a country where hospitals and schools are often poor. Throughout much of Brazil, though, the dour mood began to turn festive on Thursday. Thousands of local and foreign fans sang and danced in front of giant TV screens set up in downtown Sao Paulo ahead of the opener between Brazil and Croatia. Fireworks also echoed throughout many cities.

“It’s been all peace and love. People have been very friendly,” said Federico Ortuyo, an Argentine fan watching the game in downtown Sao Paulo. Late in the morning, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and noise bombs to disperse demonstrators who gathered in eastern Sao Paulo, about six miles (10 kms) away from the Corinthians Arena where the game will take place. A police spokeswoman said the crowd numbered about 600 at its peak. That was up from previous estimates, though it was smaller than organizers and some police had expected. After protesters tried to cut off a main road to the stadium, at least five people were injured, including some journalists. Two people were arrested for vandalism and one for carrying a Molotov cocktail, police said.

About 1,000 protesters in Rio de Janeiro marched peacefully, though some burned Brazilian flags and carried signs saying “FIFA go home,” in a reference to the world soccer body. There were small demonstrations in other host cities. What appeared to be the biggest crowd of the day, though, came as several thousand lined Sao Paulo streets to cheer on the Brazilian team’s bus as they headed to the stadium. Led by 22-year-old star striker Neymar, the team is under huge pressure to win the World Cup for the first time on home soil. The stakes are high not just on the soccer field. Whether the tournament goes smoothly may also have an effect on President Dilma Rousseff’s chances for re-election in October, as well as Brazil’s flagging reputation among investors.

More than 1 million people joined in the protests last June, but most recent demonstrators have been much smaller, numbering just a few hundred people. Polls suggest that, despite continued misgivings about the World Cup’s organization, many Brazilians will start to enjoy it once the goals start coming.
Rousseff has accused opponents of waging a “systematic campaign” against the World Cup and issued numerous warnings that a repeat of the Confederations Cup violence would not be tolerated. But Luiz Gustavo, 19, a journalism student dressed in black, told AFP: “Our strategy never was to stop the cup. The country is outraged at the waste on the World Cup.”

The scene inside Corinthians Arena was a world apart from the protests just up the road, as more than 600 dancers in colourful costumes joined pop superstars Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull to put on a lavish opening ceremony. Samba dancers, capoeira performers and a drumming collective celebrated the vast South American country’s rich cultural diversity as J.Lo and company sang the official World Cup song, “We Are One.” Despite being regarded as the spiritual home of football, Brazil has been slow to embrace World Cup fever. Excitement has built gradually in the days leading to the event, with increasing numbers of Brazilian flags flying from cars, bars and apartment blocks. A giant Brazilian flag was draped at the foot of Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue on Thursday. 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 where violent crime is rampant. Rage at poor public services morphed into a nationwide movement at the Confederations Cup test event, with deadly clashes rippling across the nation. A vast security blanket is being deployed to shield the World Cup from unrest, with 150,000 soldiers and police on duty along with 20,000 private security officers. Football’s governing body FIFA begins the tournament under pressure over graft allegations linked to its decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke said that he was confident that after years of cajoling the organisers 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 organisation 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.

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