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Jun 11, 2014

Brazil hope to end Sao Paulo hoodoo

Sao Paulo's new stadium has not been tested at its full capacity prior to Thursday's World Cup opening game between Brazil and Croatia -- an eloquent symbol of how much of a last-minute rush is taking place so that the show can open on time.

But however late it is running, it looks like an impressive modern stadium. There are many debates to be had about the 12 sparkling new grounds which will stage matches over the next few weeks.

Some would seem to have questionable long-term viability, and others are controversial in terms of the pricing policy to be adopted. It appears, though, that they have turned out to be better than expected when Brazil first embarked on this process.

Back in 2007, there was a fear that the new stadiums would retain the traditional structure with the fans a long way from the pitch -- poor for the fans, just as bad for TV images. A fortune, then, would be spent on constructing obsolete stadiums. A fortune has indeed been spent -- sparking protests across the country.

Indeed, many of the protests have based themselves on indignation that Brazil can produce FIFA-standard football stadiums but is unable to come up with the same quality in its provision of health, education and public transportation. The visiting fan, though, might be surprised by the stadiums -- next to a scenic lake, the grandiose Fonte Nova in Salvador could be one of the stars of the tournament.

A pertinent footballing question in the buildup to the big day is this: How will the stadium in Sao Paulo treat the home side on Thursday? Brazil's biggest city has a history and a reputation for being difficult for the national team. This, of course, was confirmed by the boos that Brazil received at halftime in last Friday's friendly against Serbia.

"If history says that Sao Paulo is a bit stroppy with the national team, then it's time to change this and play well enough for the fans to believe in us," said coach Luiz Felipe Scolari last week.

The Itaquerao stadium faces its first test with a packed crowd in Thursday's opener.

Of course, there is an opposing side out there looking to use the situation to its own advantage, to run down the clock and wait for the home crowd to turn against its own team. Croatia seem well suited to such a task on Thursday. With Luca Modric flitting around they have a midfield that can retain possession, frustrate Brazil and take advantage of the home side's desperation.

Many times in the Confederations Cup, Brazil came out of the blocks very quickly and scored an early goal. An interesting exception is the semifinal against Uruguay -- when Julio Cesar saved an early Diego Forlan penalty. It is perhaps not surprising that Brazil were unable to make their quick start in this game. Semifinals are notoriously tense affairs -- and so are World Cup debut matches.

I well recall being in Sao Paulo's Morumbi stadium towards the end of 2000 when Brazil played a World Cup qualifier against Colombia. Fans had been handed little Brazilian flags to wave. As the home side struggled to break the deadlock, the supporters amused themselves by hurling the flags onto the pitch in protest at the team's performance.

Brazil won the game with virtually the last kick of the ball -- in retrospect, it was the victory that went some way to ensuring that Brazil qualified and Colombia did not. But despite the win, the fans were cruel. After the game, Rivaldo, who had been singled out for special abuse, even thought about retiring from the national team.

Morumbi is over one side of the giant city. The new Itaquerao stadium is on the other side. Might the distance of a few miles make a difference to the fans' reaction if Brazil find Croatia hard to break down? It could be one of the intriguing questions of the opening day's World Cup action.