SAO PAULO — With a nationwide wave of excitement but also wafts of tear gas, the country that sees itself as the artful soul of football but is deeply conflicted about spending billions of dollars on hosting its showcase tournament kicked off one of the most troubled World Cups ever.
It started Thursday with the home team winning its opening match, 3-1 against Croatia in a stadium that was barely ready on time.
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 Seleção, embarked on the extremely serious business of conquering a sixth world title that could assuage much – but not all – the public anger about World Cup spending of $11.5 billion in a nation with tens of millions of poor.
Brazil's first opponent was Croatia. The all-new 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 were crossing fingers and toes that this crop of stars will deliver not just victory but football as art, the “Jogo bonito” – the beautiful game – that was the hallmark of great Brazilian teams of the past.
The first half was everything fans love about football – gut-wrenching, full of passion, drama and twists. Brazil made a nightmare start. Brazilian defender Marcelo looked stunned and the crowd of 61,000 wailed after he scored an own-goal that gave Croatia an unlikely 1-0 lead after just 11 minutes. And despite all the promises from government officials that Brazil would be ready, there were teething problems at the stadium: the lighting failed in one corner of the stadium, flickering off, on, off and then on again in the deepening gloam.
But the gloom lifted when Neymar lived up to his hype as the team's biggest star and tied the game for Brazil in the 29th minute, unleashing an ear-splitting roar from the crowd and across the nation. Brazilian fans call themselves “torcidas” – derived from the Portuguese word “to twist” and describing how football puts them through the wringer. This opening match certainly did that.
Even the football-loving Pope Francis got a touch of World Cup fever. He sent a video message on Brazilian television before the match, saying that the world's most popular sport can promote peace and solidarity by teaching the importance of working hard to reach goals, fair play and teamwork, and respect and honor for opponents.
But the party wasn't all fun-loving samba. In Sao Paulo, police fired canisters of tear gas and stun grenades to push back more than 300 demonstrators who gathered along a main highway leading to the stadium.
“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.”
Police also used tear gas against about 300 protesters who gathered in central Rio de Janeiro.