Anadolu Agency

SÃO PAULO – With just a day to go, São Paulo is bracing itself for Thursday’s World Cup opening ceremony and first match of the tournament between hosts Brazil and Croatia.

The 25-minute opening ceremony will showcase the host nation’s “treasures: nature, people, football,” its Belgian artistic director Daphne Cornez was quoted by local media as saying.

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Anadolu Agency

RIO DE JANEIRO – Security arrangements planned for this year’s World Cup, which set out to boost the number of military police patrolling the streets of Rio de Janeiro, have been implemented ahead of schedule, as levels of violence in the city continue to rise.

Some 2,000 military police will patrol the city’s streets from Monday, Rio’s Secretary of Public Security told the Anadolu Agency, but declined to elaborate as to where police efforts would be focused.

A spokesperson for Rio’s military police also told AA that an additional 490 officers would complete training this Friday and would join the 2,000-strong contingent on patrolling duties.

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Rio Sambadrome. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Rio de Janeiro was awash with colour, music and parties this weekend as the annual Carnival celebrations burst onto the city’s streets.

Street parties lured hundreds of thousands of revellers from across the country and the world and top-flight samba schools battling it out to become this year’s Carnival Champion.

Carnival is celebrated through the country, but Rio de Janeiro hosts the biggest party – attracting an estimated 920,000 tourists from both home and abroad in 2014 – up 2.2 percent on last year’s figures.

At the Sambadrome. Photo by Ben Tavener

União da Tijuca won the 2014 crown. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Carnival-related tourism will also bring in US$950 million for the local economy, according to Brazil’s tourism board.

The city’s world-famous Sapucaí Sambadrome, designed by the late renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, has been marking its 30th anniversary. Built in 1984, it is the venue for what the city bills as “The Greatest show on Earth” – the yearly samba school competitions.

Beginning on Sunday, top-flight special group samba schools continued for a second night on Monday to try to impress and surprise judges and wow audiences with their jaw-dropping floats and meticulously-choreographed routines in a final bid to become this year’s champion.

Schools fighting for the champions’ crown spend up to US$7 million on their parade, which they spend the whole year getting just right: each school depicts a historical or allegorical story through song, dance and costume, and each has around an hour to make their way down the length of the Sambadrome – a process involving thousands of dancers which takes spectators into the small hours of the next morning.

An intense two-day wait for judges to make their minds up then follows before the announcement.

UPDATE: União da Tijuca have been crowned the 2014 Carnival champions!

Million at street parties, despite mounting rubbish

However, most come to Rio not for the Sambadrome, but for the street parties – known as blocos – of which 465 have been hosted across Rio throughout the Carnival period this year, and some have drawn enormous crowds – many in fancy dress or drag.

Rubbish piled up in Cinelândia, central Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener

Rubbish piled up in Cinelândia, central Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener

The Cordão do Bola Preta street party – the city’s oldest and one of the biggest – united over a million partygoers on the streets of Rio’s historic Centro region.

A number of the parties are themed and while some are more family-friendly, they are well-known for their alcohol-fuelled debauchery.

The morning-after sight of streets strewn with rubbish is a common one at Carnival, but has been exacerbated this year in no small way by a strike by street cleaners the city’s municipal cleaning company, Comlurb.

Around 400 street sweepers tried to march on the Sambadrome on Sunday afternoon but were met by military police and clashes ensued as police began to disperse the group.

Rubbish was piled up in many central regions of the city, after some street parties attracted far more revellers than expected.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s trash piled everywhere and the place doesn’t smell great,” Julie, 26, a visitor from the United States, told an Anadolu Agency correspondent at the city’s AfroReggae bloco. “But this is still an amazing party, so we have no regrets in terms of coming here. Rio is gorgeous.”

The number of toilets at the sites was also noticeably lacking.

Even the Sambadrome was left looking worse for wear as the lack of cleaners left refuse strewn down the parade street at the middle of the 70,000-capacity venue.

Biggest protests in a generation

This year’s Carnival was also different for another, more subtle reason: it was the first to take place since the outbreak of mass anti-government protests seen throughout Brazil since last June – the biggest protests the country had seen in a generation.

Although protests were called for by some groups on social media website, including one under a banner of “Occupy Carnival!”, no World Cup-related or anti-government protests took place and locals say Carnival was always unlikely to see any major protests.

Rio's street parties - the "blocos" - are the true heart of Carnival. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Rio’s street parties – the “blocos” – are the true heart of Carnival. Photo by Ben Tavener.

“I’m not interested in protesting during Carnival. I’ve come all the way from Fortaleza to be here in Rio – the protests can start again afterwards, but now it’s time to party and have fun with friends,” Vitor, an 18-year-old engineering student, told AA.

Twenty-four-year-old Bruna, from Rio, agreed: “I’m not happy with the World Cup coming here, and our government still needs to know we’re angry, but this isn’t the time or place.”

Although crowds at the sporadic anti-government and anti-World Cup protests have now dwindled, they have continued with much more momentum than many observers initially credited them with.

Big protests by the “Não Vai Ter Copa” (There Won’t Be a World Cup) group on social media sites are being organized at least every month, and protests are being planned for the time of the World Cup as well.

Spotlight on Brazil

The world is now watching with heightened interest as Brazil holds its final major dress rehearsal to show it can deal with hosting the huge international events – something which Brazil, and in particularly Rio, has said it is already has a good track record in doing – with annual events such as the Réveillon New Year’s party and Carnival.

Não Vai Ter Copa. Anti-World Cup poster. Photo by Ben Tavener

Não Vai Ter Copa. An anti-World Cup poster in Rio. Photo by Ben Tavener

Brazil has now had several mainly successful dry runs including the FIFA Confederations Cup and World Youth Day last year.

Security has also been ramped up across Rio and other cities in Brazil, and both military and riot police have been on the streets to maintain order and visitor safety.

Last week, officials said 150,000 police and soldiers would be deployed, as well as 20,000 private security agents, across the twelve stadiums to keep protests under control and allow fans to get to their games – something FIFA urged Brazil to guarantee in recent weeks.

Concerns about infrastructure and hosting tourists have been largely masked by anxieties whether the country will have stadiums ready and delivered to FIFA on time.

Stadiums in Curitiba and São Paulo are currently representing the greatest worries for FIFA and are likely only to be ready in May – a month before the first World Cup match. São Paulo’s Itaquerão stadium is scheduled to host the opening game between Brazil and Croatia on 12 June.

Extended version of article for Anadolu Agency

Brazil’s Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo said on Tuesday that the country would focus efforts on tackling common crime, as opposed to larger-scale terror attacks during this year’s FIFA World Cup, which Brazil is hosting along with the Summer Olympics in 2016.

Rebelo admitted that Brazil knew less serious crime would be a possible issue for the country when it took on the responsibility of hosting the sporting mega-events:

“We [the Brazilian government] knew that we would have to live with being exposed to this risk. Not to the risk of terror attacks of a political of religious nature, which occur throughout the world,” he said, citing the Munich Massacre in which eleven Israeli players were murdered at the 1972 edition of the tournament in Germany.

The sports minister said Brazil was instead at risk of “social violence, common crime, which can be found in Brazil’s largest cities”.

Rebelo added that all football squads would receive support in terms of security, and that “additional preventative measures” would be taken to protect delegations, Brazil’s Agência Brasil news agency reported.

The comments were made as officials met in São Paulo to thrash out operational plans for the city’s hosting of the World Cup.

Officials have been quick to play down concerns of security, particularly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where many crimes are on the increase.

In São Paulo, the notorious PCC (First Command of the Capital) criminal gang last year said it would unleash a wave of attacks, directed against police officers, during the World Cup if its members were moved to harsher maximum security prisons – known for their severe overcrowding.

The PCC, which operates from inside Brazil’s prison system, was responsible for a wave of attacks and counterattacks on police in recent years.

At the time, Rebelo said he did not believe that the PCC would disrupt the games or target tourists.

In Rio de Janeiro, a programme of so-called “pacification” has had some success in driving violent drug- and arms-trafficking gangs from slum areas, known as favelas.

Police forces implementing the policy – which has now installed some 36 police stations, known as UPPs, in favela communities – started with favelas close to areas frequented by tourists or located near venues of upcoming sporting events.

The policy was broadly praised, although criminals ended up being flushed from slum to slum, and some pacified areas have reportedly silently fallen back into the control of gangs.

And even where pacification has been largely successful, crime is still common, particularly given the fact that the areas often border more upmarket neighbourhoods, especially in the city’s Zona Sul region.

Crime experts in Brazil say that tourists are very rarely the victims of the worst types of crime, such as murders, and are far more likely to fall foul of pickpockets and muggers.

They underline that more often it is the poorer members of the community that bear the brunt of serious violence. Police have been widely criticised for the number of deaths of innocent residents during operations in favelas.

Police and security officials acknowledge the shortcomings of the pacification policy and certain police operations, but argue they are training police as fast as possible with the resources available.

Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo today admitted that there would inevitably be issues involving some tourists, and that it was a risk Brazil always knew it had to take.

However, in the run-up to last year’s World Cup prélude, the Confederations Cup, concern was expressed not with regard to the level of petty crime in host cities, but because of the wave of mass anti-government protests, which spread across the country taking Brazil’s authorities by surprise.

It culminated in high riot police presence in many of the host cities and tense standoffs with protesters, of which a small minority engaged in criminal activity, such as violence and vandalism.

Given the Confederations Cup was just a small-scale version of what awaits Brazil this June for the World Cup, Brazil is keen not to see similar scene in 2014. Indeed both President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA have repeatedly said that there will be no repeat of the violence seen in 2013 this year.

Edited version of article written for Anadolu Agency