SAO PAULO (AP) — The problem-plagued preparations have been well chronicled, with critics condemning the range of issues from budget blowouts to construction delays.
Organizers need Brazil to kick off the tournament with a win over Croatia on Thursday to shift the focus back to what the host nation really cares about: winning a sixth World Cup. Brazil hasn’t hosted the tournament since 1950, when it lost to Uruguay in the title match, and that only adds to local expectations.
“We have to do everything possible to win this World Cup,” Brazil midfielder Ramires said. “We know everybody is expecting us to do it.”
With that in mind, let the games begin.
Here are some things to look for Thursday:
NEYMAR’S MOMENT: Carrying the hopes of a nation is something that gives the 22-year-old Brazil striker goose bumps.
“The time everybody has been waiting for has arrived,” said Neymar, who will direct the attack for a team that is aiming to “fulfill the dream of every Brazilian by winning the title.”
The Barcelona forward has scored 31 goals in 49 matches for Brazil, but he says it’s not a one-man show.
“I don’t play by myself,” Neymar said. “There are 11 players on the field, and everybody knows their role and what they need to do to try to help our team make it far in the tournament.”
SPOILERS: Croatia will shock the host nation and the world if they come away with even a draw, particularly without Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandzukic, who was suspended following a red card in a playoff to qualify.
Croatia, which surprisingly finished third in 1998, features Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric and Sevilla captain Ivan Rakitic, who is moving to Barcelona and will be Neymar’s teammate.
Croatia coach Niko Kovac said his team can deliver a “historic result” in Sao Paulo.
EDGE OF THEIR SEATS: With hundreds of millions of people watching on TV, organizers at Itaquerao stadium have extra cause to be edgy about preparations.
The Sao Paulo venue is set to hold a capacity crowd for the first time in the opening match of the World Cup.
The 61,600 spectators will certainly test the facility and put a strain on safety plans and equipment, which was still receiving finishing touches Wednesday after chronic delays, worker deaths and other problems during construction.
Just two matches — and none with more than 37,000 fans — were held at the Itaquerao to test its readiness.
WE ARE ONE: J.Lo is likely to perform at the World Cup after all. Jennifer Lopez told The Associated Press earlier this week that she would be flying to Brazil in time to perform during Thursday’s opening ceremony.
“We always were going,” she said. “I think people get anxious, especially with me and my schedule … but we are definitely going.”
FIFA officials had announced earlier this week that the singer wouldn’t perform the official tune “We Are One (Ole Ola)” alongside Pitbull and Claudia Leitte.
UPSET WATCH: Brazil has won 15 of its last 16 games and heads into the World Cup as a favorite to win the title, but Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad is aware that there’s no easy opener at the sport’s marquee event.
The World Cup has produced its share of shockers on opening day. Until 2006, the first game usually involved the defending champion, not the host. Two of the biggest: Cameroon upset defending champion Argentina 1-0 in 1990, and defending champion France lost 1-0 to Senegal in 2002.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.