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SAO PAULO — Brazilian police and protesters clashed in Sao Paulo on Thursday just hours before the opening game of the World Cup, which has been marred by construction delays and months of political unrest.
The demonstrations largely died down before the kickoff of a game that saw the home team defeat Croatia 3-1.
Earlier, police had to fire tear gas and noise bombs to disperse hundreds demonstrators angry about heavy government spending on the event, a spokesman for Sao Paulo state's military police said.
Demonstrators regrouped a while later and clashed with police again three blocks away, hurling rocks and setting fire to trash.
The protesters had been trying to cut off a key avenue leading to the Corinthians arena on the eastern edge of the city where Brazil played Croatia.
A few protesters suffered injuries after being hit by rubber bullets, while others were seen choking after inhaling tear gas. An Associated Press photographer was injured in the leg after a stun grenade exploded near him. CNN reported on its website that two of its journalists were also injured.
Many Brazilians are furious over the $11.3 billion spent on hosting the World Cup when basic social services are poorly financed. Their pessimism has so far overshadowed a brighter mood among the some 800,000 foreign tourists expected to come to Brazil for the event.
Much of Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city and business capital, resembled a ghost town early on Thursday after a partial holiday was declared to ensure traffic to the stadium would be light.
But excitement began to spread by mid-morning. Fans waving Brazil flags boarded trains heading to the stadium and Croatian fans drank beer on Avenida Paulista, the city’s best-known thoroughfare.
Outside city hall, Tuany Ramos sang along with about 50 other fans setting off firecrackers and blowing airhorns. "It finally arrived and we are very excited to cheer for Brazil," Ramos said.
Melisa da Silva, who was wearing Brazil's green and yellow colors as she headed to work on the subway, said the country might finally cheer up once play gets under way.
"Well, it's here, and I think now it's time to cheer the team," she said. "I don't see why people should still be sad."
Brazil's team, led by exciting 22-year-old star striker, Neymar, is widely fancied to beat Croatia on Thursday and go on to win a record sixth World Cup title.
The stakes are high not just on the soccer field. Whether the tournament goes smoothly may also have an effect on President Dilma Rousseff's chances for re-election in October, as well as Brazil's flagging reputation among investors.
Rousseff has dismissed complaints about overspending and delays in preparing stadiums and airports, and is betting Brazil will put on a show on and off the field.
— The Associated Press and Reuters