TAMPA — The World Cup cost billions to host, some of the facilities aren't yet finished even as competition begins, and no one knows how well the Brazilian national team will do. But for fans of host country Brazil, all that ceased to matter at exactly 4 p.m. Thursday when foot met soccer ball and the 2014 FIFA World Cup began.
This is the World Cup after all, and for football devotees, no amount of controversy is going to get in the way of cheering, yelling and cursing as their favorite team chases the sport's biggest prize. For backers of host country Brazil, the moment is even bigger, whether they're watching the game in person or thousands of mile away.
“This is our religion,” said Criz Lamers, one of the organizers of a World Cup party of 100 or so Brazilian soccer fans at The Lodge Restaurant on South Howard Avenue.
Bartenders were pouring caipirinhas, Brazil's national cocktail. T-shirts, hats and other novelty soccer items were on sale at a table set up in a corner by the bar. Colored coconut candies were arranged to look like the Brazilian flag on a table by the entrance.
“Today is a holiday for us,” said Lamers, who wore a flag draped across her yellow tank top.
Lamers and her friend Giselle Rosa put together a similar party for the last World Cup four years ago at Ciccio's restaurant a few blocks away. This year, Lamers said, the owner asked them to meet at The Lodge, which is better able to accommodate their large, loud group.
Minutes before the start of the match, Joshua Kreinik, the restaurant manager, was arranging chairs to make enough room for the crowd.
“I can only imagine what it's going to be like when the game starts,” he said.
The crowd in the restaurant started cheering about 10 minutes before the start of the game, and all stood and sang along with the national anthem. The mood darkened when Croatia took an early lead but became increasingly celebratory as Brazil pulled away to a 3-1 victory.
“We love soccer,” Rosa said. “We just like to get all the Brazilians together and show our passion.”
The 2014 FIFA World Cup and the accompanying celebrations gives Brazilians a chance to show their national pride, said Rene Cardoso, who came to the viewing party wearing a fuzzy yellow and green hat and a noisemaker around his neck.
“It's a love that comes from the inside out,” he said. “It's hard to describe.”
The start of the two-week tournament was not without controversy.
While Brazilians are dedicated soccer fans and their national team is recognized as one of the most successful in the sport, many have protested the steep cost of hosting the World Cup in the poor South American country.
Brazil spent more than $11 billion on preparations for the cup, and the all-new Itaquerao stadium was barely ready in time for the first match. Sao Paulo police clashed with protesters and demonstrators outside the stadium Thursday.
A huge number of people, both locally and in Brazil, are unhappy about the politics surrounding the tournament, Lamers said.
But the World Cup still is a time for everyone to come together and support their team, she said.
“I'm sure that today everybody puts everything aside and cheers up for Brazil.”