SAO PAULO: Brazil was racing to be ready for the opening of the World Cup, scrambling to apply the finishing touches to a troubled build-up dogged by delays and violent street protests.
The hosts launch the four-week football carnival when they play Croatia in Sao Paulo’s 61,600-capacity Corinthians Arena at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Thursday.
Jerome Valcke, general secretary of football’s governing body FIFA, acknowledged to reporters preparations had gone down to the wire.
“It’s not any more time to say what’s this and what’s that,” said Valcke.
“We are now in the delivery, 24 hours before the opening game, so we just have to make it. And we will make it.”
As workers planted trees and flowers around the venue on Wednesday, the threat of new chaos eased after subway workers voted against calling a fresh strike.
A walkout last week brought the city to a standstill, and a repeat for Thursday’s opening extravaganza, which is to be attended by a dozen heads of state and government, would have almost certainly caused similar havoc.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari earlier Wednesday urged compatriots to unite behind his players as they launched their bid for glory.
“To all Brazilians I want to tell you the time has arrived. This is our World Cup,” Scolari told a press conference.
As the last of the 32 teams who will contest the greatest prize in football arrived in Brazil, mounting evidence of World Cup fever was visible.
Brazilian flags fluttered from cars, bars and apartments as Thursday’s big kick-off approached.
In Rio de Janeiro, some of the 600,000 foreign fans descending on the vast South American nation thronged the famous Copacabana beach district excitedly.
Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio was among the overseas multitude jetting into Brazil, taking in the tournament from the luxury of a mega-yacht offshore.
But while more Brazilians are sporting the yellow jersey of star forward Neymar, discontent still rumbled with scattered protests planned in host cities.
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.
Last year rage at poor public services morphed into a nationwide movement during the Confederations Cup test event, with violent clashes across the city.
The rapid spread and sheer scale of the protests caught Brazilian authorities off-guard.
For the World Cup, a vast security blanket is being deployed, with 150,000 soldiers and police on duty along with 20,000 private security officers.
Brazil’s leader Dilma Rousseff warned that her government will not tolerate a repeat of last year’s protests.
“We will guarantee the security of Brazilians and of those who come visit us,” she said.
In Sao Paulo meanwhile, football politics took center-stage with FIFA president Sepp Blatter indicating he will extend his reign as the most powerful man in the sport by seeking a fresh term next year.
With corruption allegations engulfing the body over its scandal-tainted decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, Blatter said he was the man to take football into the future.
“My mandate will finish next year… but my mission is not finished,” he said.
For all the off-field problems dogging the build-up, and the sordid allegations levelled at FIFA officialdom, 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. AFP