Brazil in countdown for World Cup start
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - About 300,000 visitors from around the world are expected to attend World Cup matches across Brazil, from the steamy Amazon region in the north to the chillier pampa climes in the south to Rio de Janeiro, where the Christ the Redeemer statue spreads his arms high above the Maracana stadium where the tournament's final game will be.
The monthlong event starts June 12, when Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, hosts the opening game.
Last-minute preparations are still being completed for the onslaught of fans, with finishing touches on stadiums where the games will be played and at airports where visitors will arrive.
Vendors are arranging World Cup merchandise from key chains to T-shirts. Some merchandise features a cartoon rendering of the tournament's official mascot, Brazil's three-banded armadillo, which can roll up into a soccer-like ball when startled.
Security is being beefed up, with 157,000 soldiers and police assigned to keep order during the tournament. More protests are expected against the billions shelled out by the government to host the event, but authorities say they don't anticipate demonstrations will be as intense as those seen last year. Some police officers have sought to use World Cup security worries to pressure for pay raises, staging strikes that brought looting and other chaos.
The World Cup seems to be on everyone's mind as residents of cities around Brazil paint walls with soccer-inspired graffiti - some of it welcoming the tournament, some of it complaining about the cost. One mural at a Sao Paulo school by renowned street artist Paulo Ito has gone viral on social media, showing a weeping, starving Brazilian boy, knife and fork in hand, being served a soccer ball on a plate.
While adults debate World Cup politics, kids across the region are getting into the spirit by playing pick-up soccer games. They are inspired by the sporting heroes who will represent their countries, and many dream of one day scoring the goal that brings the world championship to their homeland.
Vendors in other countries are ready, too, such as one in Buenos Aires offering a variety of T-shirts showing Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi, alongside shirts for former soccer great Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to victory at the 1986 World Cup, and the late President Eva Peron.