SAO PAULO — "Tudo bem" — all good — as the Brazilians like to say.
With a nationwide spasm of excitement but also wafts of tear gas, the country that sees itself as the artful soul of football but is deeply conflicted about spending billions of dollars on hosting its showcase tournament kicked off one of the most troubled World Cups ever. It roared to life Thursday with a joyous 3-1 win for the home team in a stadium barely readied on time for the first of 64 matches in 12 cities. The next month will consume planet futebol and showcase Brazil's growing economic might, warts and all.
A few hundred protesters gathered in scattered demonstrations in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte, but they were controlled by police. It wasn't close to the chaos that accompanied last year's Confederations Cup tournament, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets.
After a funky opening ceremony featuring J-Lo in low-cut sparkling green and dancers dressed as trees, Brazil's beloved national team, the star-studded Selecao, made a solid if not brilliant start to the serious business of conquering a sixth world title. A good showing could assuage much — but not all — the public anger about World Cup spending of $11.5 billion in a nation with tens of millions of poor.
Brazil's first opponent was a resilient but ultimately outclassed Croatian side. The all-new Itaquerao stadium, which suffered chronic delays and worker deaths in its construction, was a sea of buttercup yellow. Brazilian fans crossed fingers and toes that this crop of stars will deliver not just victory but football as art, the "Jogo bonito" — the beautiful game — that was the hallmark of great Brazilian teams.
The game had everything aficionados love — passion, drama, spectacle and goals. Brazilian fans call themselves "torcidas" — derived from the Portuguese word "to twist" and evoking how football puts them through the wringer. This match watched by millions around the world certainly did that.
"I'm very emotional, happy, and happy that it's over," said spectator Ricieri Garbelini, visibly drained. "I was nervous for five minutes at the beginning, and at the end."
Brazil made a nightmare start. Marcelo looked stunned, the crowd of 62,103 wailed and grown men watching in bars let out howls of despairing laughter when the Brazilian defender scored an own-goal that gave Croatia an unlikely 1-0 lead after just 11 minutes. And despite all the promises from government officials that Brazil would be ready, there were problems at the stadium: The lighting failed in one corner, flickering off, on, off and finally back on again after the late-afternoon kickoff.
The mood lifted when Neymar lived up to his hype as the team's biggest star and tied the game for Brazil in the 29th minute, unleashing an ear-splitting roar from the crowd and across the nation. In the rundown city of Indaiatuba, a two-hour drive from Sao Paulo, tattooed men in undershirts celebrated by pounding on restaurant tables.
Demonstrating the love-hate relationship Brazilians have with developed with this World Cup, the crowd made hairs stand on end with its rousing rendition of the national anthem, but then started chanting against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. There were also boos for FIFA, the governing body of football.
The crowd booed Rousseff again when the stadium's jumbo screens showed her celebrating Neymar's second goal — scored from the penalty spot in the 71st minute. He thrust his arms in the air and the nation did likewise. Oscar got the third in the 90th minute. Brazil, also host in 1950, waited 64 years for the World Cup to return. But the next month will flash by if the World Cup goes as smoothly this and the team keeps on winning.
Even the football-loving Pope Francis got a touch of World Cup fever. He sent a video message on Brazilian television before the match, saying that the world's most popular sport can promote peace and solidarity by teaching the importance of working hard to reach goals and respect for opponents.
But the party wasn't all fun-loving samba. In Sao Paulo, police fired canisters of tear gas and stun grenades to push back more than 300 demonstrators who gathered along a main highway leading to the stadium.
"I'm totally against the Cup," said protester and university student Tameres Mota. "We're in a country where the money doesn't go to the community, and meanwhile we see all these millions spent on stadiums."
Police also used tear gas against about 300 protesters who gathered in central Rio de Janeiro. Protesters also gathered along Rio's famous Copacabana beach.
In Belo Horizonte, another of the 12 World Cup cities, streets downtown emptied because of the game and because of protests that tore through the area just before kickoff. Riot police stood guard on street corners littered with broken glass from windows smashed in by demonstrators. One of their signs read: "The World Cup is being done with workers' blood."
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