Sao Paulo: Brazil reaffirmed its reputation as a powerhouse of global soccer in the opening match here of the World Cup on Thursday, setting off street parties around the country, but its widening political fissures were also on display for an international audience.
Fans inside the new stadium made obscene jeers against both President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA, the organization that oversees international soccer and the World Cup, reflecting anxieties and discontents of an economic slowdown, spending on lavish stadiums and reports of corruption involving FIFA itself.
People watch a television projection of a live telecast displaying the opening match between Brazil and Croatia.
Rousseff and Sepp Blatter, FIFA's longtime president, sat together during the match, in which Brazil defeated Croatia, 3-1, and did not make any public remarks.
Small protests also erupted on the streets of several major Brazilian cities hours before the opening of the tournament, with the police repulsing demonstrators in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre. At one point in Rio, protesters marched alongside soccer fans on Copacabana beach who were singing the national anthem.
"People are disgusted," remarked Soraya Lunardi, 42, a teacher who said she skipped the game over spending on the tournament and the evictions of slum residents for World Cup construction projects.
"The country remains poor, and the image of Brazil that's being portrayed isn't right," she added, referring to the celebratory promotions and advertisements that can be seen everywhere.
While a festive mood certainly did emerge on Thursday in many parts of the country, the intensity of the crackdown by the police seemed to stun protesters in Sao Paulo, who numbered into the hundreds and were largely voicing opposition to the cost of the monthlong World Cup. Several protesters and journalists were injured in the tumult, including a producer for CNN.
"The police response was absurd," said Paula Machado, 24, an English teacher who was among the demonstrators. "This is a violation of our rights."
Resentment has persisted around the country since huge protests last June revealed fury among many people over spending on the World Cup - estimated at $11 billion - as well as the 2016 Olympic Games.
In Sao Paulo, the protesters were largely peaceful, carrying banners criticizing FIFA. Yet at certain points some masked demonstrators also threw rocks and bottles in the direction of the police, while lighting piles of street garbage on fire.
In Rio, the police used rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of protesters, and a strike by airport workers was suspended, according to Brazilian news reports, but only after causing missed flights for some World Cup visitors at the city's largest airport.
Elsewhere, a strike by bus drivers began in Natal, a host city in northeast Brazil where the United States will play Ghana on Monday. Hundreds of doctors in that city's public health system also walked.
Brazil's government said it was sending 4,700 federal troops to help maintain order in Natal, where an estimated 530,000 commuters were affected by the transit strike.
Amid such tension, many disagreed with the politicized atmosphere around the opening game.
"It's incredibly disrespectful," said Ederson da Silva, 30, a waiter, about the jeers directed at Rousseff. "I understand the anger that some people have, but that doesn't mean they should do this at the inauguration."
The protests unfolded near scenes of revelry and excitement. On Avenida Paulista, one of Sao Paulo's main thoroughfares, hundreds of Croatian fans drank beer, sipped whiskey, chanted and blew into plastic horns, creating a cacophony of sounds.
"Brazilians should protest at the ballot box, not at this time," said Ulisses Augusto, 60, a retired salesman. "I just want Brazil to win the Cup in order to silence these clowns who are protesting."
© 2014 New York Times News Service