It went down to the wire at the Itaquerao, the Sao Paulo stadium where the opener of the 2014 FIFA World Cup will take place on Thursday – or down to the gutter, as it were. In the last hours before kickoff, workers were still hammering rain guttering into place, finalizing the lighting, nailing up festive banners.
But all the major stuff is sorted out, and Brazil is bracing itself for its biggest ever moment in the spotlight. A certain sense of euphoric giddiness is setting in here, as sidewalks fill with tourists in foreign team jerseys.
Some significant potential problems do loom over opening day. Protests – against corruption, government waste and the high cost of living – are scheduled in the capitals of seven states across Brazil for Thursday. It is not at all clear how many people will join, or how police – who are under intense pressure to make sure that the games are not derailed, and also that the right to protest is respected – will respond. And workers on Sao Paulo’s metro – the critical route to the stadium – are threatening an illegal walkout.
But no one seems too worried. Brazil’s cities are bulging with football fans who tend to have an air of befuddlement but general good cheer. Argentines, in particular, are arriving in force: 100,000 of them in total are expected to come to Brazil support their team, hoping to see Argentina in a final match with arch-rival Brazil. There are so many, in fact, that they are undermining the Argentine government’s exchange controls, meant to shore up the crippled peso. The World Cup visitors are buying the dollars they need to travel on the black market, pushing the exchange rate ever lower.
Argentine superstar Lionel Messi told Mexican reporters on Wednesday that his fervent dream is to face off in the final with the Brazilian striker Neymar Jr. – his teammate, in regular-play at FC Barcelona; many fans here have the same fond wish (but didn’t expect him to say so quite so bluntly). Mr. Messi noted that this is his third Cup, while it is a first for Neymar (and for most players on Brazil’s team). Taking no chances, the Argentine team has hung a large picture of Pope Francis in their training ground.
The Dutch players are early favourites with the Brazilian public: They have embraced the Rio lifestyle, playing paddle ball on the beach, jogging en muscled masse up the cobbled sidewalk of Ipanema, and dining out in chic local eateries. Their practices are open to the public, and young Rio men are now hanging out there in droves, doing their best to flirt with the posse of very blond Dutch women who have come to cheer on their team.
The German team meanwhile danced with Pataxo indigenous people in a city in Bahia, and not to be outdone on the charm offensive, the British players tried their hand at capoeira in the Rio favela of Rocinha.
The Portuguese team flew in to Campinas, near Sao Paulo, on Wednesday, and Andressa Urach was there to meet them, wearing skintight pants and a “Portugal jersey” that was, literally, painted on. She’s famous in Brazil as Miss Runner-Up Bum Bum (that’s the local word for, well, bum, pronounced “boom boom,” and a hotly contested title each year). Ms. Urach claims some sort of previous romantic entanglement with Portuguese player Cristiano Ronaldo, voted this year’s FIFA Player of the Year. Mr. Ronaldo, who denies there was any relationship, whisked by in the bus and didn’t stop to talk, to her dismay.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff addressed the nation Tuesday night with part pep talk, part scolding. She rebuked those who argue Brazil has spent too much on the Cup, noting that since 2010 government has spent 212 times more on education and health-care systems than it has on stadiums, and reminded them that the improvements in infrastructure done for the Cup “won’t depart in the suitcases of tourists.” She urged Brazilians to throw open their arms in the manner of Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, and show visitors a vibrant democracy that is quickly becoming a more equal nation.
Workers of all kinds have taken to the picket lines in record numbers in recent weeks, using the leverage of disruption of the Cup to demand better wages. In Natal, where Mexico will play Cameroon on Friday, everyone from municipal guards to medical personnel to bus drivers are on strike. Sao Paulo’s subway employees went back to work Tuesday after a strike that had snarled the city for days. Labour courts have ruled the strike illegal but the workers nevertheless held out the threat that they would walk off the job again just before the opener.
Ten prominent Rio activists were detained by police on Wednesday, and had their computers seized, which human rights groups called a clear attempt by government to intimidate protesters. But 10,000 homeless people, who had been staging one of the highest-visibility protests camped out next to the Sao Paulo stadium, called off their demonstration after the government promised them new houses.
Editor's note: Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr. play for FC Barcelona. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated they play for Real Madrid.