The most trouble-plagued World Cup in history kicks off today with Brazilian organizers hoping for a carnival, but bracing for chaos after a torrid buildup underscored by public anger at the tournament’s multi-billion-dollar price tag.
A four-week feast of soccer in the spiritual homeland of the sport gets underway in the seething megacity of Sao Paulo, where host nation Brazil face Croatia at 5pm Brazil time.
The start of the four-yearly extravaganza is the acid test for organizers and soccer’s governing body FIFA, who have been scrambling to get Brazil ready for the biggest event in sport outside of the Olympics.
The first of 64 matches, which culminate with the July 13 final in Rio de Janeiro, is to be staged in the Corinthians Arena, a venue which has become emblematic of a buildup besieged by setbacks.
Construction of the US$424 million venue ground to a halt in November last year when a giant crane toppled over and killed two workers. A third laborer died in an accident in March. In total, eight workers have died while racing to complete World Cup-related projects.
The 61,600-capacity arena is one of 12 World Cup stadiums that were due to be ready by the end of December last year. Six missed the initial deadline, with final delivery to FIFA eventually coming in late May.
Only this week, workers could be seen busily wiping seats, checking beams and installing wiring just days before the opener, which is to be attended by 12 heads of state, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and assorted VIPs.
Yet FIFA officials are bullishly backing Brazil, with FIFA president Sepp Blatter, under fire over corruption allegations rocking the global governing body, confident the country will unite behind the tournament.
“We at FIFA, we are confident, it will be a celebration,” Blatter said. “After the tournament kicks off I think there will be a better mood.”
However, the specter of social unrest and transport chaos looms large.
A strike by Sao Paulo subway workers demanding better pay last week brought the city to a standstill and led to baton-wielding riot police firing teargas to break up protesters before the walkout was suspended on Monday.
Union leaders have threatened to resume the strike during the tournament if their demands are not met. On Tuesday, subway workers in Rio de Janeiro, which hosts seven games including the final, threatened similar action.
Authorities are nervously eyeing the possibility of a repeat of nationwide protests that exploded around the FIFA Confederations Cup last year.
The estimated US$11 billion Brazil is spending on the tournament has angered many in a country grappling with chronically underfunded health and public services, poor transport and violent crime.
The rapid spread of last year’s protests caught Brazilian authorities off-guard and a massive security blanket will be draped across the World Cup in an effort to avoid a repeat of the clashes.
About 150,000 police and soldiers and about 20,000 private security officers are to be deployed across the 12 host venues to counter protesters, whose slogan is “the Cup will not take place.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has hit out at what she described as a “systematic campaign” against the tournament.
“Brazil is ready on and off the pitch,” she said in a televised address late on Tuesday. “The pessimists … have been defeated by the hard work and determination of the Brazilian people, who never give up.”