World Cup's opening match mesmerizes BraziliansJune 13, 2014 1:09am

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — They watched at remote cattle ranches on the edge of the Amazon. Thousands gathered before a giant screen on sun-drenched Copacabana beach In Rio. In hole-in-the-wall bars in hillside slums, haughty high society clubs and family living rooms across the country, all eyes were trained on TV sets as the World Cup began Thursday in Brazil.

Not even protests outside the stadium in Sao Paulo where Brazil defeated Croatia 3-1 could dampen Brazilians' enthusiasm for the national team, which is chasing a sixth championship.

It started on a nervous note for the home crowd, though.

At Rio de Janeiro's Jockey Club, where the moneyed elite watched the game on giant screens while sipping on wine underneath the gaze of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, the crowd let out a collective screech when Brazil's Marcelo scored an own goal, giving Croatia an early 1-0 lead.

But anguish turned to delight minutes later when superstar striker Neymar slipped a ball past a diving Croatian goalkeeper to even the score.

"This is what always happens with Brazil," said Eduardo Almeida, a consultant who paid $55 entrance fee at the club. "We're nervous and screw things up at first, but then we get loose and confident and we kick butt."

At the other end of Brazil's highly stratified income ladder, in the Santa Marta slum, a group of mostly black residents sent beers flying and jumped in place ecstatically after the tying goal.

The loudest celebration, aside from the 61,000 fans at Itaquerao stadium in Sao Paulo, could be heard on Copacabana beach. There, fans dressed mostly in the yellow and green of Brazil's flag began lining up around breakfast time, eight hours before kickoff, for the chance to watch the game on an imposing 150-square-meter (1,615-square-foot) television screen.

The FIFA Fan Fest at Copacabana got started early, with Brazilians having a good laugh watching their newfound foreign friends try out samba steps and shake their rear ends to the gyrating, lustful rhythms of Rio's trademark funk music. As night fell after the game, and a bright full moon rose from the sea, hundreds more who couldn't find a spot on the sand crowded onto Copacabana's black and white stone mosaic sidewalk.

Amid the sea of patriotic colors, a single Croatian fan stood out in his nation's checkered red and white jersey. Ivan Lucic, from Drubovnic, said in broken English that attending the World Cup in Brazil was a dream come true. "The Brazilians are wonderful," he said while posing for friendly photos with people in the crowd.

As the beach party hit full swing, several dozen activists marched just beyond the security perimeter carrying signs proclaiming "There will be no Cup." It was the latest protest over the billions spent on stadiums — money that activists say would have been better spent on schools and hospitals.

Inside the Fan Fest, except for loud jeers whenever Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA boss Sepp Blatter appeared on screen, concerns about wasteful spending were put aside as soon as Brazil's team walked on the field and the national anthem was played.

"Brazil may never be allowed to host the World Cup again, but I assure you we'll win plenty more trophies," said Jenifer Barbosa, a nurse who summed up the deep ambivalence many Brazilians feel about hosting the tournament, but not the national team.

Not everyone is so optimistic about Brazil's chances in the World Cup.

On a cattle ranch near Cuiaba, the heart of the country's expanding agricultural frontier, cowboy Joao Paulo Silva said the team has room to improve.

"Brazil is playing pretty well but it's going to take quite a lot for us to make it to the finals," he said after watching the game's first half a black and white TV set, then got back to work milking the cows one last time before dark.

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Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Sao Paulo, Yesica Fisch in Rio de Janeiro, Andy Drake in Cuiaba and Chris Gillette in Manaus contributed to this report.

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