SAO PAULO — It’s almost time. The day Brazilians have been anxiously waiting for is finally here.
Brazil play Croatia tonight to get the home 2014 Fifa World Cup underway, beginning their quest for a sixth world football title almost seven years after the nation was picked as host.
After so much talk about delays, protests and problems, fans at last are getting a chance to cheer for the national team on home soil in football’s showcase tournament.
If Brazil win the opening game, the fact that the stadium in Sao Paulo isn’t even fully finished yet will quickly be forgotten.
A loss, quite simply, is unthinkable for a nation whose identity is so closely linked to its football team.
Brazil haven’t hosted the World Cup since 1950, when it endured a heartbreaking loss to Uruguay in the final. This time, everybody knows that only the title will be enough to please the home crowd.
“We are all eager to get started, we are just counting the days,” Brazil midfielder Ramires said yesterday. “We know that the fans have confidence in our team and they are behind us. We have to do everything possible to try to win this World Cup. We know everybody is expecting us to do it.”
Boosted by the home crowd, Brazil are one of the main favourites to recapture the trophy won by Spain four years ago in South Africa. But the other usual World Cup contenders will be trying to spoil the party in the land of football, including Germany, Italy, Argentina and the Netherlands, runner-up in 2010.
Brazil are trying to become the first nation to win the World Cup at home since France did it in 1998. The Brazilians were eliminated in the quarter-finals of the last two tournaments, to France in 2006 and the Netherlands in 2010.
A festive World Cup atmosphere has taken over Brazil in the run-up to the tournament despite the country’s preparation problems and the threats of protests.
Brazilians had been slow to get into the World Cup mood, but now streets are being painted with the green and yellow colours and local flags are being displayed on windows of homes across the country.
The crowd support is one of the biggest reasons coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has been saying loud and clear that Brazil are obligated to win the World Cup at home. Players also don’t hide that they believe Brazil are the main title favourite.
“We know that we will have the fans behind us, and together I think we have a great chance of reaching our final goal, which is to win the World Cup,” Brazil starting midfielder Luiz Gustavo said.
Brazilian fans had been questioning the national team before last year’s Confederations Cup, but the title in the warm-up tournament was enough to bring the fans back on board.
That tournament also helped show that Brazil have a team capable of competing against the top football nations today. The victory came in a final against world champions Spain.
“The Confederations Cup allowed us to regain our confidence,” said Scolari, the coach when Brazil won their last world title in 2002.
“Now we have to repeat that during the World Cup.”
Brazil begin the tournament having won 15 of their last 16 matches, the only loss a 1-0 result against Switzerland in the first match after the Confederations Cup.
Brazil will start the World Cup with the same line-up that won the Confederations Cup, with 22-year-old Barcelona striker Neymar leading the team.
Scolari, meanwhile, has been hit by personal tragedy ahead of the start of the World Cup.
His nephew, Tarcisio Joao Schneider, reportedly died in a car accident on Tuesday. Several local and international media outlets report, the 48-year-old’s car collided with a truck at a roundabout in the city of Passo Fundo, Rio Grande do Sul.
Croatia, led by Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric, will hope to pull off a monumental upset, but the team won’t be at full strength against the hosts.
Coach Niko Kovac won’t have forward Mario Mandzukic, who was red-carded in the team’s final qualifier, and experienced midfielder Niko Kranjcar, who had to be dropped from the squad because of a late hamstring injury.
Novac was already without defender Josip Simunic, who was banned for 10 games by Fifa for leading fans in a pro-Nazi chant after a qualifying match.
The high-profile opening match will be played at the troubled Itaquerao, the construction of which was delayed so badly that the roof won’t even be fully finished until after the tournament.
A crowd of more than 61 000 people is expected at the Itaquerao, including many heads of State.
The other Group A match will be played between Mexico and Cameroon tomorrow in the north-eastern city of Natal.
The five-time champions are expected to qualify from their group without too much trouble, but Barcelona defender Dani Alves admitted there was anxiety ahead of the Sao Paulo opener, as they seek to ease the jitters.
“I have always said that if you don’t feel anxiety it is not worth being a professional athlete. The opening game is difficult, important,” said Alves.
“The three points count, but so does the idea of sending out a message to our rivals. The most important game at the World Cup, for everyone, is the opening game.”
He added: “We will only know on Thursday (today) if everything is OK. We are very confident and we want this moment to come. We want to enjoy the World Cup. We are going to try to give a good image.”
The only question mark for tournament favourites Brazil for the match at the new Corinthians Arena would appear to be over the out-of-sorts Oscar, with his impressive Chelsea teammate Willian pushing for a starting berth.
Brazilian reserve striker Jo, speaking after training on Tuesday, said the mood in the camp was calm but the nerves would be jangling as kick-off approached.
“At this moment, everyone is calm,” said the striker. “When we go to Sao Paulo and the game approaches, there will be excitement, anxiety. But the opening of the World Cup in our country will be different to others.”
Meanwhile, Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura will have the honour of refereeing the opening game of the World Cup finals tonight between hosts Brazil and Croatia, Fifa announced on Tuesday.
The 42-year-old — the Asian Football Confederations’ referee of the year in 2012 — will be assisted by compatriots Toru Sagara and Toshiyuki Nagi, with Alireza Faghani of Iran designated as the fourth official.
Having been in charge of four games in 2010, including the quarter-final encounter between the Netherlands and Brazil, Nishimura becomes the third Japanese referee to have officiated at two World Cup finals after Shizuo Takada (1986 and 1990) and Toru Kamikawa (2002 and 2006).
Since making his international refereeing debut in 2004, Nishimura has been assigned to numerous other finals tournaments with his most important games the Under-17 World Cup 2007 final between Spain and Nigeria, and the Club World Cup 2010 final between Democratic Republic of Congo outfit TP Mazembe and Italian giants Inter Milan.