A member of the Homeless Workers Movement carries a Brazilian flag past burning tires during a protest against money spent on the World Cup near Itaquerao stadium. Public resentment over alleged corruption and overspending around the tournament has overshadowed the festivities of the World Cup's opening. Andre Penner/Associated Press
Bitterness and malaise are casting gloom over World Cup host Brazil, a nation whose culture is so entwined with soccer that locals proudly refer to it as o pais do futebol (the country of football).
The spiritual home of soccer has been beset with transit strikes, protests, security concerns, criticisms about wasteful spending, construction delays and accusations of government corruption surrounding the tournament.
Activists have decried the building of sparkling new stadiums when, according to the NGO Moradores do Rua, an estimated 1.8 million Brazilians (one per cent of the population) are forced to sleep on the streets.
"I don't like the way FIFA operates because they are very abusive," said Paulo Ito, a Sao Paulo street artist whose graffiti mural depicting an emaciated child about to dine on a soccer ball illustrated the "bread, not circuses" sentiment of so many of his countrymen.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter continues to fend off allegations of secret deals and bribes related to the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
Mixed emotions among Brazil fans
A poll last year found three out of every four Brazilians believe corruption has tainted the World Cup.
Public resentment over this year’s $11.5-billion tournament — the most expensive ever — has made it difficult for diehard green-and-yellow supporters to reconcile their love for the beautiful game with their social consciences.
"People are like, 'I love the World Cup, I love the football. But what is happening? They're still robbing money, stealing money,'" said Daniel Victor Leon, President of the Team Brazil Fan Club.
"It's like the people are in doubt. Do I have to support Brazil right now or do I go to protest?"
In Sao Paulo, days before the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, there was scant evidence of World Cup fever other than in some commercial pockets manned by World Cup merchandise hawkers.
Tickets sales, meanwhile, have not been as strong as hoped for some matches.
FIFA said Wednesday that tickets were still available for more than 15 matches, including for soccer powerhouses such as Germany, Italy and France. A total of 3.2 million tickets for 64 matches had been up for grabs.
President appeals for World Cup support
On the eve of the event's opening, the public ambivalence prompted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to do something that might have seemed superfluous decades ago: She called on Brazilians to back the country's team and support the World Cup.
"I'm certain that in the 12 host cities, visitors are going to mix with a happy, generous and hospitable people, and be impressed by a nation full of natural beauty and which fights each day to become more equal," she said in a televised appeal, dismissing complaints from "pessimists" who feel Brazil should not be hosting the World Cup.
But there is reason for pessimism, said Fernando Marcato, a partner in the Sao Paulo consulting firm Go Associados.
Marcato foresees a future in which some of the 12 arenas constructed for this World Cup — including in the Amazon and the rural "far west" — could go to waste, becoming crumbling venues rarely visited by teams after soccer’s biggest tournament.
The remote Amazonian city of Manaus, for example, is the site of a $318-million arena that is inaccessible by road. Three workers died during its construction.
'White elephant' stadiums
"Me, my friends, all the Brazilian people are going to pay [for that stadium] because the stadium is a white elephant," environmentalist and activist Hamilton Leao said.
Other facilities were rumoured to have been incomplete just days leading up to the opening match.
"This could have been a good legacy for the country. However, the government — both the local and the federal government — were not able to conclude all the works that were planned, so it seems that we won't have a good legacy looking forward," Marcato said.
"The media was very tough with the government … regarding the cost of the stadiums, and so this has caused a bad mood in the population," he added. "Today, we feel that the streets are not so motivated as they used to be in the previous World Cups."
One way the World Cup narrative could shift from anger to celebration would be with a victory. The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup, it was 1950, and in the final against Uruguay, Brazil lost by a goal.
The national team has since become five-time champions. To Marcato, a reversal of fortune this time on home soil might be enough to lift some spirits.
"If we win the World Cup, it could be the start of a good legacy," he said.
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