Brazil's day has finally arrived.
The sun rose Thursday on a tropical nation hosting its first World Cup of soccer in 64 years. Nearly half the world's population, well over three billion spectators, is expected to watch soccer's premier event and get a glimpse of the country that in two years will host the Summer Olympics.
Play begins with Brazil and Croatia meeting in Sao Paulo on Thursday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 3:30 p.m. ET). Brazilians are hungry to see their soccer juggernaut deliver a record sixth World Cup crown to a nation desiring something — anything — to celebrate after enduring a year of gruelling protests and strikes.
But as play begins, it still isn't clear which Brazil we'll see.
Will it be the irreverent nation known for its festive, free-wheeling spirit? Or the country that for the past year has been a hotbed of fury over poor public services, discontent over a political system widely viewed as corrupt and deep anger over the $11.5 billion US spent on hosting the World Cup?
By mid-morning, it looked like it would be both.
Protesters and Brazilian police clashed in Sao Paulo on Thursday, with more than 300 demonstrators gathered along a main highway leading to the stadium. Some in the crowd tried to block traffic, but police repeatedly pushed them back, firing canisters of tear gas and using stun grenades.
A few protesters suffered injuries after being hit by rubber bullets, while others were seen choking after inhaling tear gas. An Associated Press photographer was injured in the leg after a stun grenade exploded near him. CNN reported on its website that two of its journalists were also injured.
"I'm totally against the Cup," said protester Tameres Mota, a university student at the demonstration. "We're in a country where the money doesn't go to the community, and meanwhile we see all these millions spent on stadiums."
About 300 protesters also gathered in central Rio de Janeiro in another demonstration against the World Cup, though no clashes were reported by early afternoon.
Meanwhile, the streets were filled with fans ready for festivities.
"The world is going to see multitudes cheering for soccer — but also demanding that our country change," Helen Santos, a school teacher, said as she walked home in Rio de Janeiro.
"The world needs to see that we're a serious country. We're not just a nation of soccer, but a country striving and demanding the government provide better education and health care.
"The world needs to see the reality of Brazil, not just the sport."
'What will the world see?'
Street protests have lessened in size since last year when Brazilians staged raucous rallies against the government, overshadowing the Confederations Cup soccer tournament. On one night, about a million people spontaneously spilled into the streets of various cities. For two weeks, dozens of places were roiled by unrest.
"I hope the soccer outshines the protests, but I also know there remains a climate of anger," said Edson Carvalho, an office assistant watching 10 barefoot young men play a pick-up soccer match in Rio's Botafogo neighbourhood.
"What will the world see? I'm waiting to find out myself."
In 2007, when FIFA named Brazil as the host nation for the 2014 World Cup, the country's folksy and immensely popular president at the time, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, told a celebratory gathering in Zurich he would return home filled with joy, but also feeling the burden that comes with hosting the world's biggest sporting event.
"At the heart of the matter, we're here assuming as a nation, as the Brazilian state, to prove to the world ... that we're one of those nations that has achieved stability," Silva said then. "Yes, we're a country that has many problems, but we're a nation with men determined to resolve those problems."
Silva added that he "wanted to assure FIFA officials" that Brazil would prove able to put on a great Cup.
Seven years on, as the global spotlight finally shines on Brazil, the world will see a great sporting event with soccer returning to one of its most passionate cores on a continent that relishes the game.
But the glare also will glow on those problems Silva referred to, the lingering ills that have not gone away
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