Protests linger, excitement high as World Cup begins in Brazil

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SAO PAULO -- Standing near the exit of the Arena Corinthians metro station in Sao Paulo, drowning in a sea of dancing yellow and green jerseys, with fireworks and cornetas blaring, it is easy to forget that the months and weeks leading up to this day were marred by often deadly protests and civil unrest.

Fans of all nations gather outside the stadium before World Cup kickoff. (Marwa H. Helal)

The 2014 World Cup kicked off as planned Thursday afternoon, with the 170,000 extra security forces  making their presence felt and keeping any anti-FIFA demonstrations at a distance.

A few hours before kickoff and only three miles away from the stadium, police helicopters hovered above a group of nearly 300 protestors, armed with blow horns and anti-World Cup signs. The military on the ground stifled any attempts to march down Melo Freire, the straight-shoot route to Arena Corinthians, the site of the opener for the 32-team international soccer tournament.

Police block activists from walking down the main stretch toward the stadium. (Marwa H. Helal)

Here, the fireworks were replaced by the explosion of tear gas bombs the military threw to disperse the crowd. Guards marched towards protesters, and rubber bullets pelted those not willing to clear the area.

Activists flee police tear gas in the midst of protest. (Marwa H. Helal)

A man is wounded by a police rubber bullet. (Marwa H. Helal)

“We’ll continue to fight, regardless, against this government’s reckless spending and injustice,” said Callo Costa, as police ordered protesters to move or be moved by force. “Cup or not, we’ll continue to fight against the loss of respect and the loss of dignity we deserve.

Callo Costa defiantly protests despite strong police presence. (Marwa H. Helal)

On certain streets, armed military forces outnumbered the demonstrators. The opening-day protests were a far cry from those that preceded the $11.3-billion event, the most expensive World Cup in FIFA history.

Groups that planned to take to the streets on opening day – like the Homeless Workers Movement representing the thousands of families that occupied a lot only a block away from Arena Corinthians – reached a deal with state officials and vowed not to protest during the Cup. The state pledged to build affordable housing on the occupied lot, which was cleared out by the time Neymar Jr. and the rest of the Selecao took the field and beat Croatia 3-1.

Striking subway workers reached a temporary deal for a pay raise, and returned to work in time to accommodate the thousands of fans relying on public transportation to reach the stadium. A functioning metro system also eased congested traffic on the roads.

Fans make their way to Arena Corinthians in São Paulo. (Marwa H. Helal)

As fans filed into the 68,000-seat arena -- remodeling was not completed in time for a test run prior to the opener -- security personnel swarmed the area, with at least a handful on every other street corner.

“I think it’s a bit exaggerated,” said Wellington Costa, who didn’t have a ticket to cheer on his national team but planned to watch the match with other fans at a nearby bar. “They overreacted a bit. We are a loving, peaceful people.”

Despite the constant reminder that the party was being heavily monitored, fans from around the world joined in on the dance and chants with Brazilian fans before the match.

“There’s a lot of police but it doesn’t bother me,” said Roeman Sanchez, who flew in from California with some friends Wednesday. “I read about the protests before and I wasn’t worried about that, I’m here for the full World Cup experience.

American fans Roeman Sanchez and friend celebrate kickoff. (Marwa H. Helal)

Arena Corinthians has a week’s break before Uruguay and England visit Sao Paulo for a group stage matchup next Thursday.

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