SAO PAULO - Brazil kicks off the World Cup Thursday hoping to unite the football-mad country after a chaotic seven-year build-up plagued by violent protests.
The 32-team extravaganza gets under way in the teeming mega-city of Sao Paulo, where the host nation's beloved 'Selecao' faces Croatia at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) before 61,600 supporters and a worldwide television audience of several hundred million.
Thursday's Group A match signals the start of a month-long football fiesta taking place against backdrops which showcase Brazil's breathtaking diversity, from the picture postcard beauty of Rio de Janeiro to fading colonial grandeur of Manaus, deep in the Amazon.
After years of apathy and simmering resentment at the tournament's record US$11-billion (S$13.73-billion) price tag, Brazilians were grudgingly embracing World Cup fever in the final hours before the big kick-off.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari urged compatriots to unite behind his players as they launched their bid for glory.
"To all Brazilians I want to tell you the time has arrived. This is our World Cup," Scolari said in an eve-of-tournament rallying cry.
The popular Scolari, who masterminded Brazil's last World Cup win in 2002, said his team were seven matches from immortality.
"The first step is Croatia," he said. "After that we have six steps that we want to go up if we want to win the World Cup."
World Cup fever
As the last of the 32 teams who will contest the greatest prize in football arrived in Brazil, mounting evidence of World Cup fever was visible.
Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue has been illuminated in the colors of all nations taking part while Brazilian flags fluttered from cars, bars and apartments as excitement built.
In Rio de Janeiro, some of the 600,000 foreign fans travelling to Brazil thronged the famous Copacabana beach, staging impromptu football matches.