— RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's day has finally arrived.
The sun rose Thursday on a tropical nation hosting its first World Cup in 64 years. Nearly half the world's population, well over 3 billion spectators, is expected to watch soccer's premier event and get a glimpse of the country that in two years will host the Summer Olympics.
But just hours before play begins, it still isn't clear which Brazil we'll see.
Will it be the irreverent nation known for its festive, freewheeling spirit? Or the country that for the past year has been a hotbed of fury over poor public services, discontent over a political system widely viewed as corrupt, and deep anger over the $11.5 billion spent on hosting the World Cup?
By mid-morning, it looked like it would be both. Small protests broke out in Sao Paulo and Rio, but the streets were overwhelmingly filled with fans ready for festivities.
"The world is going to see multitudes cheering for soccer — but also demanding that our country change," Helen Santos, a school teacher, said as she walked home in Rio de Janeiro. "The world needs to see that we're a serious country. We're not just a nation of soccer, but a country striving and demanding the government provide better education and health care. The world needs to see the reality of Brazil, not just the sport."
Soccer will take the spotlight when play begins with Brazil and Croatia meeting in Sao Paulo on Thursday. Brazilians are hungry to see their soccer juggernaut deliver a record sixth World Cup crown to a nation desiring something — anything — to celebrate after enduring a year of grueling protests and strikes.
Police in Sao Paulo used tear gas to disperse a small group of anti-World Cup protesters who tried to march on a main roadway. Striking airport workers in Rio de Janeiro temporarily blocked the main highway leading from the airport into the city. More protests are called or in both Rio and Sao Paulo, along with at least five other cities. It wasn't clear how large the demonstrations might be.