|The opening ceremony is under way in Sao Paulo on Thursday. (AFP-Yonhap)|
The 2014 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Brazil on Thursday as the host country took on Croatia in the opening Group A contest, under the cloud of protests and mounting criticism over the South American nation's readiness to stage football's grandest event.
Brazil is hosting the World Cup for the second time. The all-time leader with five World Cup trophies, Brazil will be looking to add to that total on home soil.
Brazil has drawn Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon in Group A.
Spain, the defending champion, is in Group B with the Netherlands, the runner-up to Spain four years ago; Chile; and Australia.
South Korea, competing in its eighth consecutive World Cup, has drawn Russia, Algeria and Belgium in Group H, and will open the tournament against Russia next Tuesday in Cuiaba. South Korea has set up its base camp in Foz do Iguacu, about 1,100 kilometers south of Cuiaba.
Coached by former national team captain Hong Myung-bo, South Korea has been lethargic in the buildup to the World Cup. It lost to Tunisia 1-0 on May 28 in Seoul and then to Ghana 4-0 on Monday in Miami.
Hong and his players insisted they have put their past results behind them and they are only focusing on their task ahead in Brazil.
In the opening ceremony, Itaquerao Stadium shined under blue skies as Brazil kicked off its home World Cup with a football-style Carnival Thursday before thousands of dancing yellow-clad fans, who seemed eager to put construction delays and protests behind them.
Jennifer Lopez, rapper Pitbull and pop star Claudia Leitte bounced around a giant stage resembling a peeled melon singing the World Cup theme ``We Are One'' as Brazilian band Olodum banged drums below on this nation's Valentine's Day.
JLo, dressed in a low-cut sparkling green outfit, turned up for the performance despite earlier reports that she wouldn't be able to attend.
Brazil is ready to samba, and plans to teach the world to join in for the coming month during the showcase tournament for the world's most popular sport. The futebol-crazed country hoped Thursday's Croatia-Brazil opener would be the start of a run to extend its record to six World Cup titles.
At one point at the end of the ceremony, fans chanted and booed against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and soccer's governing body, FIFA. Many in the nation have complained that spending on the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics has diverted cash from the poor and infrastructure improvements.
Although traffic and transit strikes have plagued the sprawling Sao Paulo area in recent weeks, thousands made it into Itaquerao Stadium in plenty of time to party. The home fans cheered alongside small pockets of spirited Croatians in their checkered red and white tops.
The field was covered in multi-colored rays for the opening ceremony, which cost 18 million Brazilian reais, or about $8 million. A stadium worker died March 29 while installing temporary seats for the opener after construction already had been behind schedule.
Video highlights and memorable bloopers from past World Cups were shown on the big screens at either end of the stadium toward the conclusion of the 30-minute show.
The program was choreographed by Paulo Barros, a two-time winner of the samba school title at the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. After 100 hours of rehearsal and 31 auditions, circus artists and army soldiers were among those who performed.
But preparations for this year's World Cup have been marred by construction delays and protests by the public who's disgruntled over the $11 billion cost.
Workers have been killed during construction of the stadiums across Brazil, including three at Arena Corinthians, the venue of the opening match. As recently as Tuesday, several workers could be seen making some last-minute efforts to finish the stadium.
Protest groups have also threatened to demonstrate on Thursday in host cities, including in Sao Paulo, as the opponents of the World Cup, angry over the high cost, have argued that the country should have spent the money in areas such as transportation and health care. (Yonhap, AP)