By Todd Benson
SALVADOR, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil officially kicked off World Cup fever on Sunday in a Carnival frenzy, unveiling the national soccer team's new away jersey at one of the biggest street parties on the planet.
With the World Cup in South Africa only four months away, Brazil's celebrated soccer team got the countdown underway in the cradle of Afro-Brazilian culture, the picturesque city of Salvador on the country's sun-baked northeastern coast.
The honors fell to Carlinhos Brown, one of the deans of Afro-Brazilian music and a mainstay at Salvador's famed annual Carnival bash. Brown will be the first to don the new blue jersey on Sunday when he performs for tens of thousands of revelers on the city's streets.
"This is more than just a shirt, it's a mantle of love", Brown, whose real name is Antonio Carlos Santos de Freitas, said as he tried on the shirt on his balcony overlooking a beach packed with cheering fans.
"Let's hope it brings us luck," he shouted to the crowd.
It is no coincidence that the 47-year-old Brown was chosen to showcase the national team's new away jersey, which was designed by U.S. sporting goods company Nike. Brown's lucky color is blue, the color of the Afro-Brazilian deity, or Orixa, that he worships as part of his religion, Candomble.
Though most people associate Brazilian soccer with its trademark bright yellow shirt with green trim, the blue jersey has been ingrained in the national psyche as a good luck charm since Brazil won its first World Cup in 1958.
That year, the Brazilian team was forced to wear blue for the first time in the final against the host country Sweden, whose home jersey was also yellow. To this day, Brazil -- the only country to win the World Cup five times -- has never lost a World Cup match in its blue shirts.
A die-hard soccer fan, Brown plans to sport the blue jersey again on Ash Wednesday, when he and a band of 200 percussionists will bring seven days of nonstop Carnival celebrations to a close with a final march along the streets of Salvador, Brazil's third-largest city.
SALVADOR CARNIVAL RIVALS RIO
Salvador, a colonial gem that was founded in 1549 by Portuguese settlers and was Brazil's first capital until 1763, bills its annual Carnival bash as the world's biggest street party. Every year about 2 million people spill onto the city's streets for a week of dancing, drinking and debauchery, including tourists from all around the globe.
This year, city officials expect the event to bring in about 1 billion reais ($538 million) and create 215,000 temporary jobs for the local economy, which is dominated by tourism and an industrial hub on the city's outskirts where Ford Motor Co. has a state-of-the-art factory.
Soteropolitanos, as Salvador's easy-going residents are known, like to boast that their Carnival is more inclusive and down-to-earth than Rio de Janeiro's, a highly glamorized and commercial event where well-financed samba schools compete by parading before thousands of paying fans in a stadium dubbed the Sambadrome.
Salvador's version is a throwback to Carnival's origins as a street party for all. The city blocks off 15 miles of streets and public squares for dozens of block parties with bands blasting Afro-Brazilian music from on top of massive trucks called "trios eletricos."
Not all the fun is free. To get close to the action, revelers pay anywhere from 200 reais ($107) to 2,500 reais ($1,344) for an "abada," a color-coded sleeveless shirt that serves as a pass to follow a given band through the streets. Still, plenty of stragglers tag along from afar for free.
And unlike Rio, where samba reigns, Salvador dances to the beat of axe (pronounced "ah-shay"), an Afro-Brazilian blend of upbeat and percussion-heavy dance music that gets its name from the Yoruba world for energy.
"There's no comparison. Rio's Carnival is for tourists. This is a Carnival for the people, a true street Carnival," said Vera Ferreira, a Rio native who has been a regular at Salvador's Carnival since 1988.
"Even though it's becoming more commercial, it's still the best Carnival in the country."