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RIO DE JANEIRO – In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, reports of strikes, demonstrations, unfinished stadiums and inevitable traffic problems dominated the news. But since the first match kicked off on June 12, goal-filled games, superstar performances and upsets have delighted fans — particularly those from Latin America.
By Sunday night, 32 of the 64 matches will have been played. Nearly halfway through this World Cup, The Associated Press takes a look at how things have stacked up so far.
SAFETY — Tourists have complained about muggings and pickpockets, but overall the safety for fans so far has been solid. Brazil's reputation for violence — a United Nations report says the country has more annual murders than any other — has many fans on high alert and taking special care of where they travel. There have been incidents of gunfire near areas where fans are watching matches or staying, but none targeting World Cup tourists. The clashes between drug gangs and police that often result in shootouts have been muted in Rio — as has often been the case during big events. Skirmishes between rival fans have been rare, with hooligans from any country not yet making an impact. The mass demonstrations that sent millions into the streets during last year's Confederations Cup tournament have not reappeared, and the scattered protests have mostly been dispersed quickly by police.
TRANSPORTATION — Despite transportation strikes leading up to the World Cup, subways in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have efficiently carried fans to matches. The other host cities rely on roadways, and they've been congested. That's normal for Brazil's metropolitan areas. Pele himself complained that he missed the first half of the Brazil vs. Mexico match because his car was stuck in traffic on his way to a viewing party in Sao Paulo. Brazil's airports have handled the load of tourists traveling around the continent-sized nation although there have been complaints of delays and cancelations. Terminal expansions weren't completed in time for the Cup, but there have been no major problems for flying fans around — just fewer of the creature comforts found in airports elsewhere.
STADIUMS — The state of the stadiums was a major concern before the tournament started. Workers died in construction, organizers gave up on some finishing touches and temporary seats were brought in just days before the games began. The stadiums have performed better than expected, but not without some problems. A rickety staircase at the Maracana was repaired after video showed it swaying under thousands of fans. The grass at the Manaus stadium looked a little dry before the games, but wasn't a huge problem. Some stadiums have had long queues to get through security. Most alarmingly, more than 100 Chilean fans in Rio broke into the Maracana, getting past security and damaging a media center before being corralled, arrested and told to leave the country.
TECHNOLOGY — Goal-line technology was introduced at the World Cup for the first time and was an instant hit, being used at least twice in the opening rounds of competition to rule if the ball had crossed the line for a goal or not. The technology was introduced after the World Cup four years ago, when an England goal against Germany was not allowed even though the whole world saw that the ball had crossed the line by almost a yard. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, until then an implacable foe of using technology, changed his mind suddenly and tests began. In Brazil, seven video cameras are trained on each goal, able to tell with a margin of error of 1.5 mm if the ball has crossed the five-inch wide goal line. The first goal to be given using the new technology made the score 2-0 to France against Honduras. The word "GOAL" flashed up on the referee's wristwatch and the goal was given. Teething problems annoyed the Honduras players and FIFA promised to have a look at some details of what the public got to see, but there was widespread belief that the technology had removed one of the most controversial elements of the game and made referees' task much simpler.
INNOVATIONS — Soccer has well and truly entered the age of technology. It's not just 22 players running around after a ball any more. At this World Cup, most of the teams are using all sorts of high-tech devices to manage their players. The players can be wirelessly monitored during games and practice. A widget in the jerseys transmits heartbeat and other medical data to the coaches who monitor on iPads and can tell when a player is peaking or tiring. A chip in players' boots transmits distance run and speeds to the benches as well. One shoe manufacturer has introduced a boot weighing just 99 grams and millions have been spent developing what FIFA calls the perfect ball. The Brazuca ball made by Adidas, unlike its predecessors made by the same German company, has been hailed at the World Cup. It doesn't deviate in the air too much. The ball itself has even attracted almost 2 million Twitter followers. High-tech jerseys are made to combat the heat of Brazil. One of the biggest success stories of the Cup has been introduction of Vanishing Spray applied by the referee to a line 10 yards from where a free kick is due to be taken. In the past, a wall of players intended to block the kick would often sneak forward toward the ball, but the referee now marks out 10 yards and uses an aerosol to apply a white line that vanishes after 30 minutes or so. Defenders are banned from crossing the white line and players have obeyed the ruling.
FAN EXPERIENCE — Fans from all over the world have come to the homeland of "jogo bonito" and the overwhelming reaction in the stands, in the streets and on social media has been positive. Fans have enjoyed the hospitality, the weather, the food and drink and the sites of Brazil. Latin American neighbors have particularly enjoyed the tournament, in part because their teams are doing very well. Fans from Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Mexico have packed stadiums and belted out their national anthems proudly. Even the United States — which has had a tiny fan base at some recent World Cups — has sent a large and vocal crew of supporters, taking over Natal when the U.S. played in that coastal city. The biggest complaint from fans has been about the price of scalped tickets. With most big games sold out, prices to high-demand games have been well over $1,000 per ticket.
MATCHES — The games have been excellent, with some saying the early group games have been among the best in World Cup history. Teams have played aggressively, and there have been just a handful of draws. Trailing teams have made comebacks, and a several upsets have captivated TV audiences around the world. Superstars such as Neymar, Robin Van Persie and Lionel Messi have played well. Although there were a handful of questionable calls, most games were decided by the players, not referees. Although a couple of European powers — Spain and England — were eliminated early, fans in most of the world have enjoyed the goals and the games.