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Brazilians struggle with World Cup excitement, political frustration on eve of big event

  • APTOPIX Brazil Soccer WCup Germany-1.jpg

    German's national soccer player Thomas Mueller, center, and his teammates visit with a group of Brazilian Indians who came to watch their training session, near Porto Seguro, Brazil, Monday, June 9, 2014. Germany will play in group G of Brazil's 2014 soccer World Cup. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader) (The Associated Press)

  • APTOPIX Brazil Soccer WCup US-2.jpg

    United States' Geoff Cameron reacts as the team bus arrives at the team hotel in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monday, June 9, 2014. The U.S. will play in group G of Brazil's 2014 soccer World Cup. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (The Associated Press)

  • Brazil People’s Soccer Cup-3.jpg

    Women wearing wedding dresses and vampire make up pose for a picture while holding a sign that reads in Portuguese, "FIFA Gang" during the final round of the 2014 People’s Soccer Cup in Santo Cristo slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, June 8, 2014. The symbolic event wants to call attention to the illegalities and human rights violations occurring during the city’s preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. The tournament is both a sporting event including games in men’s and women’s divisions and a political and cultural event. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) (The Associated Press)

  • Brazil WCup Subway Strike-4.jpg

    Subway train operators, along with activists from social movements, clash with riot police in front of the Ana Rosa metro station, in an ongoing subway strike, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monday, June 9, 2014. Authorities are deeply worried about the strike because the subway is the main means of transportation for World Cup fans scheduled to attend Thursday's opening match when Brazil takes on Croatia. The stadium is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of central Sao Paulo, where most tourists stay. (AP Photo/Mario Angelo) (The Associated Press)

  • 3b38064b68578516560f6a706700d9d7.jpg

    Brazilian Army soldiers attend a last day of training in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, June 8, 2014. More than 2500 members of the Brazilian armed forces take part in the security operation for the 2014 World Cup, which starts on June 12. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres) (The Associated Press)

It's a tale of the two World Cups — one on a field and one playing out on this country's streets.

As Brazilians raise the curtain this week on what's arguably the world's most popular sporting event, the country's fervent love of soccer is butting up against public anger over charges of wasteful spending, corruption, traffic jams, strikes and a litany of other complaints.

After enduring a year of anti-government protests that tied up roads and strikes that paralyzed public transport, schools, and other services, many exhausted Brazilians finally are preparing to cheer on their beloved team, though in what may be the flattest pre-Cup climate they've yet seen.

On a dark, rain-soaked street in Rio's Copacabana neighborhood, Francisco Nascimento climbed a rickety wooden ladder to hang plastic streamers in the colors of Brazil's national flag. With only a few days to go before the Cup's opening match, Nascimento was running out of time to repeat the ritual he's completed for every World Cup since 1982.

"I started putting the decorations up really late this year, I can't say why. Normally I would have done this a month earlier," Nascimento said. "Still, I feel a responsibility to show the world our pride, even if it's just these little streamers.

"Brazil's struggles, our frustration with politicians, have dampened excitement, and that anger won't go away. But I don't know anybody who isn't praying for our team to show its grit, to show our swagger, and win this Cup."

Anticipation is building over the tournaments' expected drama: Will boy wonder Neymar help Brazil avenge its haunting 1950 Cup loss in Maracana? Will Lionel Messi finally lead Argentina to glory on its archrival's home turf? Or will an underdog team emerge to captivate the world's imagination?

But on the Cup's eve and with great hopes that Brazil's team will win its sixth world title, surely attention will focus on the soccer and not on the street?

"There is certainly a mood of 'we've already paid for the party so we might as well enjoy it,'" said Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil's best-known sports commentators. "But there is also the feeling that a lot of people are ashamed. They're ashamed to wear the Brazil jersey or put a Brazilian flag in their window because of the protests, because they don't want to be associated with the exorbitant spending on the Cup."

Brazilians question whether the expense of hosting the Cup will prove to have been worth it, considering their constant pain of having one of the world's heaviest tax burdens yet still enduring dilapidated hospitals, roads, security and other poor public services. Many demand that Brazil build schools as spectacular as the new stadiums.

Recent polling shows half the population disapproves of Brazil hosting the event at all, a position once unthinkable for the nation that embodies soccer like no other. Three-fourths polled are convinced corruption has tinged World Cup works which have cost the country $11.5 billion.

The struggles with the Cup have become emblematic of Brazil's larger ills, of citizens' feelings that they're forever hamstrung by politicians on the take and their anger at dealing daily with a broken, frustrating system.

Brazilians are split on whether their country's international reputation will be helped or hindered by the event, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, despite leaders' grand hopes that the event would unveil a newly powerful Brazil on the global stage.

Even a popular poll giving the "temperature reading," of how Brazilians feel about the Cup indicates mixed sentiments, with about 40 percent telling the Ibope polling group they were on the cold-to-frozen end of the spectrum, 30 percent on the warm-to-boiling side, and the rest in the lukewarm middle.

President Dilma Rousseff, whose popularity in polls continues to slip ahead of an October presidential election, has repeatedly invoked the warm nature of the Brazilian people as being the country's saving grace.

Kindness and smiles will make up for incomplete airport renovations, public transportation works that never got off the ground and worries of logistical struggles for the hundreds of thousands of fans as they move around a continent-sized nation with already seriously strained infrastructure.

"We're prepared to offer the world a marvelous spectacle, made richer with the happiness, respect and kindness that is characteristic of the Brazilian people," Rousseff said last week when presenting the World Cup Trophy for public viewing in Brasilia.

But Kfouri and other observers say leaders are overestimating their constituents' good will.

"Authorities are confident that Brazil's 'Carnival spirit' will overcome all the problems," Kfouri said. "But I think the mood of the Cup will greatly depend upon what Brazil's national team does on the field.

"If Brazil is knocked out in the Round of 16 and we've got two weeks of a World Cup in Brazil and no Brazilian national team playing, well, then, even if just for diversion, people will take to the streets to make a mess, to protest against the fact that we can't even win in soccer."

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Bradley Brooks on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bradleybrooks