AUTHORITIES in Brazil will today step up their vast security operation ahead of the opening game of the World Cup and amid the ongoing threat of protests and crippling transport strikes.
After a turbulent year of demonstrations by those angered by the billions of pounds spent on the event, the host nation will kick off the tournament this evening in their group match against Croatia.
Ahead of the tie, president Dilma Rousseff used a nationally televised address to appeal to ordinary people to show their support, while rebuking the “pessimists” who believe the country should have had no part in staging it.
On the streets of the country, regarded by many as football’s spiritual home, the mood was subdued on the eve of the big kick-off, with tickets still available for more than 15 matches, including ties featuring Germany, Italy and France.
Delays in building and updating stadiums, airports and other infrastructure, combined with anger over the £6.7bn price tag, have fuelled repeated protests – some of them violent – over the past year
Visitors already in Brazil for the tournament have expressed disappointment at the atmosphere, describing it as “depressing” with a lack of facilities for fans. With only hours to go before the opening game, construction work is still taking place in parts of the country.
In Natal, hundreds of workers are rushing to prepare the area around the stadium before tomorrow’s match between Mexico and Cameroon, with toilet blocks as yet uncompleted.
Many Brazilians believe the money spent on building new stadiums in cities that only have small local teams should have gone instead to improving social services.
Support for hosting the World Cup has fallen from nearly 80 per cent in 2008 to less than 50 per cent this year, according to pollster Datafolha.
Ahead of tonight’s opening ceremony, Ms Rousseff defended the public investments and urged her compatriots to give visiting fans a warm welcome.
“We did this, above all, for Brazilians,” she said, adding that the public works built for the tournament “won’t leave in suitcases along with the tourists”.
Ms Rousseff said that “for any nation, organising a World Cup is like taking part in a tough – and many times painful – game”.
The leader rebuked those who argue Brazil has spent too much on the event, saying that, since 2010, the government has spent more than 200 times what it invested in stadiums on education and healthcare.
In a call for unity, she added: “Beneath those green and canary jerseys, you embody a powerful legacy of the Brazilian people. The national team represents nationality. It’s above governments, parties and interests of any group.”
Along with a fresh wave of protests, subway worker unions in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are currently mulling over whether they intend to call transport strikes for the coming days.
The situation in Sao Paulo in particular is deeply worrying for World Cup organisers. They are counting on the subway systems to carry tens of thousands of fans to the games, with the Itaquerao stadium far from the hotel areas where most tourists will stay.
Union workers in Sao Paulo suspended their strike for two days, but planned to vote again last night to decide whether to renew it.
If they do, the subway system would grind to a halt today just as Brazil’s game with Croatia is about to go ahead.
Cecilia Salazar, a 64-year-old shopkeeper from Argentina visiting Sao Paulo with her husband, said: “It’s depressing. It’s like people don’t have the enthusiasm they had in other years, especially for a country that has football in its soul.”
Some, however, were happy to be in Brazil regardless of the potential for unrest.
Juliana Likovac, a Croatian fan in Rio with her boyfriend, said: “I have seen order before.
“This is Brazil! I want it to be a little crazy.”