Apprehension and Apathy Compete With Excitement in Brazil

But instead of coming together to extol such triumphs on the global stage as the host of the World Cup, the soc...

But instead of coming together to extol such triumphs on the global stage as the host of the World Cup, the soccer tournament starting on Thursday with teams from 32 countries, Brazil is marked by rifts, with some people genuinely excited about the event while others are simmering with resentment over its ballooning costs and a sluggish post-boom economy.

While thousands poured into the streets in 2007 to celebrate Brazil_s winning bid to host the World Cup, bitter strikes are now roiling major cities. In S__o Paulo, where the opening match between Brazil and Croatia is just days away, riot police officers on Monday used tear gas to disperse striking subway workers. Brazilian legends of the sport, from Ronaldo to Rom__rio, are voicing shame and disgust over troubled preparations in the nation that has won the World Cup five times, more than any other country.

_This is the strangest atmosphere I_ve ever witnessed in Brazil before a World Cup, as apprehension and apathy threaten the normal excitement,_ said Antonio Ris__rio, a historian who explores soccer_s role in shaping Brazil_s national identity.

Only 34 percent of Brazilians think the World Cup will help the economy, which is in its fourth straight year of slow growth, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Thirty-nine percent say the tournament will actually hurt Brazil_s image around the world, according to the face-to-face survey of 1,003 randomly selected adults from across the country.

More than 200 million people live in Brazil, Latin America_s largest democracy, and the country has about as many opinions on hosting the World Cup. President Dilma Rousseff, in an interview last week in Bras__lia, defended loans from state banks for building lavish World Cup stadiums, and said Brazilians were gearing up to embrace the tournament.

_The closer we get to the Cup, the more Brazil is going to show its passion for soccer,_ Ms. Rousseff said.

But signs of such enthusiasm still remain somewhat sparse. And with political analysts arguing over how the Cup_s outcome may influence this year_s presidential election, Ms. Rousseff_s government is clearly hoping for a strong showing by Brazil_s national team in a tournament unmarred by major problems.

The sense of malaise is partly about the preparations for the World Cup itself, but also reflects a deeper, underlying anxiety about the direction of the country as the economic slump has persisted amid waves of antigovernment protests, reflecting demands from the growing middle class for better services. The divisions are manifesting themselves in unlikely ways; even as many Brazilians voice support for a soccer team that has long been the nation_s passion and pride, others are expressing unhappiness with the sport being placed above other priorities.

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Before a warm-up match last Friday between Brazil and Serbia, the subway strike in S__o Paulo affected millions of commuters. Raising the fear of more unrest, police officers dispersed the strikers by beating them with batons in scenes recorded on smartphones and spread on social media.

The game disappointed, too. Brazilian fans at the stadium even booed Neymar, the 22-year-old star of Brazil_s national team, which limped to a 1-0 victory.

The jeers for stars who traditionally achieve something resembling the status of minor gods came as disenchantment festers with the country_s soccer establishment, tainted by its ties to scandal-scarred FIFA, the organization that oversees international soccer and the World Cup, and by revelations of bribes to top Brazilian soccer officials.

While the national team is still received warmly in many places, the players had to pass through a gantlet of protesters here in Rio de Janeiro this month on their way to their luxurious training camp in the mountains. The chant of the striking teachers who led the protest: _An educator is worth more than Neymar._

_That talk about the national team being the patrimony of Brazil, the affirmation of our identity and civility and cordiality, no one swallows that anymore,_ said Arnaldo Bloch, a columnist for the newspaper O Globo.

Despite the tension surrounding the Cup, many Brazilians point out that the country has a tradition of warmly receiving foreign visitors and pulling together at the last minute complex events like the Pan-American Games in 2007 or last year_s World Youth Day, an international conference of Catholic youths which featured a visit by Pope Francis.If Brazil starts winning, some contend that optimism will surge around the first World Cup in the country since 1950, and easily exceed the low expectations. _People are worried about how much has been spent,_ said Jos__ Evaraldo Bezerra, 48, a doorman at a residential building in Bras__lia. _But once we see the first game, the parties will start._

To the relief of authorities who contend Brazil will put on a great show despite some airports and transit systems not being completed, the streets in some areas in Brazilian cities are finally becoming festooned with yellow and green ribbons, the colors of the national team.

Even so, many Brazilians say the decorations are less extensive than in the run-ups to other World Cups. In Jardins, an upscale S__o Paulo district, many store owners opted against such adornments out of fear that their premises would be targeted for damage by anti-World Cup protesters, said Rosangela Lyra, president of the area_s commercial association.

The massive street demonstrations against government corruption and World Cup spending that shook Brazilian cities last June have evolved into smaller protests, often led by fringe groups.

New York Times | By SIMON ROMERO

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