Brazil racing to SWC kick-off

Brazilian street vendor (AFP)
Brazilian street vendor (AFP)

Sao Paulo - Brazil has scrambled towards Thursday's start of the World Cup start with yellow and green flags flowing from cars, bars and apartments but the threat of protests hung over the four-week football carnival.

Even outside of the tournament, a corruption storm swirled around football's governing body FIFA ahead of the opening match between Brazil and Croatia at Sao Paulo's 61 600-capacity Corinthians Arena.

The football-mad country has spent months embroiled in protests over the $11 billion cost of the extravaganza. Construction delays have also beset preparations.

Workers were racing to put the finishing touches on the Corinthians Arena on the eve of the opening ceremony, installing a tarp to cover scaffolding on a footbridge between the stadium and the street.

But President Dilma Rousseff insisted that all 12 World Cup stadiums are ready and that the estimated 600 000 visitors would be welcomed with "open arms."

Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari issued a stirring eve-of-tournament rallying cry as his team set off on their bid to win a record sixth title at home.

"To all Brazilians I want to tell you the time has arrived. This is our World Cup," Scolari said.

But while more Brazilians are sporting the yellow jersey of star forward Neymar, discontent still rumbled with protests planned in host cities.

In Sao Paulo, subway workers will vote late Wednesday on whether to resume a strike over pay that could cripple the city for the opening match.

During a five-day strike last week, the city was seething with massive traffic jams and riot police used tear gas to disperse protestors.

In another host city, Natal, bus drivers decided to strike ahead of Friday's Mexico-Cameroon game. US Vice President Joe Biden will be in the northeastern city on Monday to watch the United States play Ghana.

Rousseff warned that her government will not tolerate a repeat of violent protests that marred last year's Confederations Cup.

"We will guarantee the security of Brazilians and of those who come visit us," she said in the northeastern city of Salvador on Wednesday.

She used a nationally televised address Tuesday to lash out at "pessimists" but she acknowledged that organizing the cup took some "sweating and suffering."

The 12 World Cup stadiums were due to be ready by the end of December but six missed the initial deadline and eight workers died in the construction, including three in Sao Paulo.

Workers could still be seen wiping seats, checking beams and installing wiring in the Corinthians Arena days before the opening match, which will be attended by a dozen world leaders including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

At the 46 000-capacity Amazonia Arena in Manaus, there were worries about the pitch, which appeared dry in several areas, while power cables dangled in the changing rooms.

Yet FIFA officials bullishly backed Brazil, with Blatter voicing confidence that Brazilians will be in "a better mood" once the ball gets rolling.

Brazilians waited longer than in previous World Cups to decorate their streets, but fans are slowly buying more green and yellow flags, shirts, hats and wigs.

Antonio Carlos Rodrigues, 63, was selling flags on a busy Sao Paulo street but said sales were down compared to 10 per day compared to 30 in previous World Cups.

"Brazilians are less motivated because of the demonstrations and the metro strike," Rodrigues said.

The estimated $11 billion Brazil is spending on the World Cup has angered many in a country with chronically under-funded health and public services and violent crime.

The rapid spread of last year's protests caught Brazilian authorities off-guard.

But officials are deploying 150 000 soldiers and police along with 20 000 private security officers to thwart possible protests.

Despite the off-field problems, the tournament itself promises to be a classic.

Defending champions Spain are bidding to make history by becoming the first side from Europe to win a World Cup in South America.

Vicente del Bosque's side have dominated international football for the past six years, winning two consecutive European championships either side of their memorable triumph at the 2010 World Cup.

Brazil are hosting the tournament for the first time since 1950 when they suffered a heartbreak 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the deciding game.

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