BRAZIL put on a lavish opening ceremony for the 20th World Cup last night – as riot police continued to break up protesters angry at the cost of staging the tournament.
Cheering crowds gathered at the Arena de Sao Paulo to watch the opening ceremony which culminated in a giant LED light-emitting “football” unfolding to reveal singer Jennifer Lopez alongside rapper Pitbull and Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte performing the official World Cup song We Are One (“Ole Ola”).
Earlier in the week, it had been rumoured J-Lo was thinking of cancelling her appearance due to unspecified “production issues.”
The performance had been heralded by the Brazilian national flag being carried into the centre of the stadium and the announcement of the national motto, “order and peace”. Guests included the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and embattled Fifa president Sepp Blatter.
More than 600 dancers, gymnasts and stilt walkers entertained spectators and acted out scenes from Brazil’s history, illustrating the diversity of its people.
In stark contrast to the violence and protests outside the stadium, the ceremony began with a peaceful scene of dancers dressed like waterlillies and children on trampolines shaped like giant waterlily leaves — representing the flora of the Amazon.
A canoeist held aloft gave way to dancers acting out the role of African slaves on the country’s sugar plantations. This included a display of capoeira — the Brazilian martial art combining dance and acrobatics — which was perfected by the slaves who were not permitted to carry weapons.
A more contemporary note was then struck by a display of footballing skills by local schoolchildren — 63 boys and one girl.
The daytime ceremony served as the prelude to the opening match of the tournament between Brazil and Croatia, which kicked off at 5pm local time.
Earlier, police had fired stun grenades and tear gas and led baton charges during clashes with protesters in Sao Paulo demonstrating over the £8 billion spent on the World Cup.
Angry protesters said the money would have been better spent on the country’s poorly financed healthcare and schools.
Just hours before the opening match, a crowd of protesters attempted to block the main route to the arena which was hosting the match. They held up a red banner which read: “If we have no rights, there won’t be a cup.”
Protests were also staged in Rio and around half a dozen other cities in Brazil with a number of police, teachers and transport workers taking part.
Helen Santos, a school teacher from Rio de Janeiro, said she was glad the protests would be televised worldwide.
“We’re not just a nation of soccer, but a country striving and demanding the government provide better education and healthcare. The world needs to see the reality of Brazil, not just the sport.”
President Rousseff brushed off accusations about costs, as well as protests and strikes surrounding the month-long event which features 32 nations and 64 games. “What I’m seeing more and more is the happiness of the Brazilian people with our team,” she said.
Pope Francis delivered a message to World Cup organisers, players and fans, saying he hoped the event would bring people together. The video message expressed his hope that the World Cup could be transformed into “a festival of solidarity between peoples”.