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Wednesday, Jun 18, 2014

Sports

Brazil's World Cup party off to strong start

AFP | Wednesday, Jun 18, 2014

RIO DE JANEIRO - There were fears of mass protests, unfinished stadiums and rampant crime, but a week into the World Cup, there is a carnival atmosphere in Brazil and the worst doubts have largely dissipated.

In stereotypical "jeito brasileiro," or Brazilian style, the hosts waited till the last minute to pull their World Cup together and get into the celebratory spirit.

But with the national team top of their group, the foreign fans flooding in and the caipirinhas flowing, the 2014 World Cup has gotten off to a largely successful start.

Goal-fest 

On the pitch - even the sandy, sweltering one in Amazonian city Manaus - the World Cup has not disappointed.

National football legend Zico summed up the success of the tournament so far, praising Brazilians, "who make people happy," alongside "lots of fantastic goals." There have been a prolific 49 goals in 17 matches, despite two goalless draws - a lackluster Iran-Nigeria match and a riveting one between Mexico and Brazil.

The latter gave rise to a new hero, Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, whose string of magical saves frustrated the hosts to the end.

Social media celebrated the performance with comparisons to Gordon Banks' legendary display against Pele in the 1970 World Cup.

There has also been plenty of drama.

Spain, the reigning champs and dominant force of the past six years, crumbled spectacularly in the face of an onslaught by Holland's Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben that ended 5-1.

And Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning World Player of the Year, fell off his pedestal in Portugal's 4-0 humiliation by Germany.

Zico says he wants to see a Brazil-Argentina final for the football purists; fellow legend Pele wants to see Brazil-Uruguay, so the hosts can avenge their upset in 1950.

But there is still lots of football to play before the July 13 final in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium.

Tear gas to fireworks 

Kick-off day began in a haze of tear gas as protesters in Sao Paulo clashed with police.

It ended with fireworks and euphoria at Brazil's 3-1 win against Croatia, drowning out the activists' anti-World Cup chants.

Despite a year of protests over the record $11 billion spent on the World Cup, just a small core of determined activists are rallying at scattered demonstrations that have hit most of the 12 host cities.

Police have arrested scores of protesters for trashing banks, throwing stones and otherwise causing pandemonium.

But the protests have never grown larger than the hundreds, and journalists have sometimes outnumbered activists.

Infrastructure snags 

With days to go, workers could be seen racing to put the final touches on some stadiums - including Sao Paulo's Corinthians Arena, which hosted the opening match.

Despite the last-minute rush, there have been no infrastructure catastrophes.

Airports have had fewer delayed and cancelled flights than the international average, according to the civil aviation secretariat.

But fans have complained of huge lines to get into stadiums.

Many fans missed the start of Switzerland and Ecuador's match in Brasilia, where bottlenecks at metal detectors caused lines that still stretched around the stadium minutes from kick-off.

The country's saturated cell-phone networks have also caused headaches for fans trying to send selfies from the stadium.

The most embarrassing snag for organizers was in Porto Alegre, where the sound system failed for the French and Honduran national anthems.

FIFA apologized for the problem.

Beach parties

As predicted, foreign tourists are descending on the country in hordes - arrivals are on track to hit the predicted 600,000.

Fans from abroad have enjoyed basking in Brazilians' hospitality and love of parties.

The epicenter of the party, Rio's Copacabana beach, never empties out, with fans pitching tents or sometimes just collapsing in the sand to sleep.

The fan parks where matches are broadcast on giant screens have drawn tens of thousands of people, bringing foreigners and Brazilians together in an international celebration of football - and partying, alcohol and flirting.

Widespread anger persists in Brazil over corruption, shoddy public services and the sluggish economy.

But those issues can wait for elections in October. There's a World Cup on in the land of football.

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