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Protest clashes mar divided Brazil's World Cup party

Brazil's ambivalence toward the World Cup was on full display as the country geared up for the game, the sea of green and yellow in some areas contrasting with the clashes between police and protesters in Sao Paulo and fears of more nationwide.

SAO PAULO: Between rounds of tear gas, as black-masked protesters tore down traffic lights, a man stuck his head out the window and shouted a message capturing the divide troubling Brazil on kick-off day: "Today there will be a Cup!"

The outburst was a twist on the "There won't be a Cup" slogan used by demonstrators that have dogged Brazil for the past year, marring preparations for the opening match in Sao Paulo's shiny new -- if chronically delayed and over-budget -- Corinthians Arena at 5:00pm (2000 GMT) Thursday.

Brazil's ambivalence toward the World Cup was on full display as the country geared up for the game, the sea of green and yellow in some areas contrasting with the billowing smoke from burning garbage and clouds of tear gas that filled the air as military police and protesters clashed in the nation's financial hub.

In cities across the country, many morning commuters proudly wore the number 10 jersey of star striker Neymar or decked themselves out in the colors of the flag, whether with green-and-yellow shirts, dresses, skirts or flowers in their hair.

In Rio de Janeiro, there was a festive atmosphere as tourists took in the breathtaking views from Mount Corcovado, where an enormous Brazilian flag adorned the base of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.

Football fans from around the world sporting the colors of their teams gathered around the monument, one Argentine proudly flying a flag proclaiming "Yes We Can."

In Sao Paulo, where authorities have declared a holiday, fans gathered in the early morning outside the hotel housing the Brazilian team.

Monica Seixas came to take a picture with her dog, both decked out in green and yellow.

"I love the World Cup. I always follow it and now I'm super excited that it's happening in Brazil," said the 57-year-old engineer outside the Hotel Pullman Ibirapuera amid a heavy police presence.

That festive mood seemed a world away from the clashes that broke out around the Carrao subway station on Sao Paulo's east side, but in fact the two spots are just a few kilometres apart.

Some 100 activists clad in the black masks and scarves of radical protest movement Black Bloc tore down street signs and traffic lights, setting fire to them to block off a central street and prompting police to fire rubber bullets and stun grenades.

The protesters were trying to march toward the main avenue leading to Corinthians Arena, which will host a crowd of more than 60,000 people -- including 12 foreign heads of state -- for the opener.

But the police crackdown sent them fleeing, one small group weaving in between traffic on a six-lane eastern avenue the Brazilian team was to take to the stadium.

Officers fired tear gas into the traffic, forcing cars festively decorated with Brazilian flags to slow down and try to weave their way through the chaos.

Meanwhile in Rio, striking airport ground staff -- the latest to join the wave of strikes ahead of the tournament -- invaded the road to the city's international airport and briefly blocked it off.

Their protest created a long traffic jam, causing some worried travellers to leave their vehicles and run to catch their flights.

In downtown Rio, around 1,000 protesters sought to revive the momentum of the million-strong protests that shook Brazil last year during the Confederations Cup -- a World Cup dress rehearsal -- shouting "FIFA go home!"

The World Cup atmosphere was also visibly tense elsewhere.

In Belo Horizonte, many banks and businesses around the central square were closed ahead of a planned protest.

Host city Curitiba also had minimal World Cup spirit on display, with little green and yellow on the streets.

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