RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Simmering civil tension and the stench of corruption threatens to sully Brazil's global soccer party when the World Cup kicks off on Thursday against a backdrop of protests, unrest and alleged political graft.
What was to be a soccer celebration is in danger of being hijacked by off-field issues as a growing furore surrounding FIFA over alleged vote-buying for the 2022 World Cup stews and anger over domestic political corruption broils throughout Brazil.
The gloom is a far cry from what was envisioned when Brazil was selected as host nation in 2007. But if any country can perform a feat of spiritual alchemy using football as its tool, Brazil can.
And for all the FIFA and protest dramas, billions of people around the world will tune in as eagerly as ever once the action begins.
The home of what Pele termed "the beautiful game" is likely to respond like few others could, if its yellow-shirted heroes can carry all before them.
A joyous festival of football would indeed be testament to the power of soccer if the sport shrugs off the unseemly smog enveloping the lead-up to this tournament.
Brazil will be confident of providing the perfect fillip when they open the World Cup with a Group A clash against Croatia in Sao Paulo on Thursday.
EXORCISE THE GHOSTS OF 1950
The hosts are favourites to clinch a record-extending sixth World Cup crown come the July 13 final at Rio's Maracana stadium, and certainly it would be a triumph to finally exorcise the ghosts of 1950.
Sixty-four years ago the tournament was held with a round robin format and the Brazilians needed a draw to win the title in front of 200,000 fans at the Maracana.
However, they were beaten 2-1 by Uruguay in a national tragedy known as "the Maracanazo".
While there will be some 100,000 fewer people in the rebuilt Maracana for the 2014 tournament, expectation will be no less weighty.
That does not bother their wily coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to their fifth triumph 12 years ago.
"Every day I am more and more certain we are going to win the World Cup," he said, allowing no room for failure.
"I know we must respect other teams but generally speaking we are better. Be with us during the World Cup: participate, jump up and down, get into the spirit.
"We want you to help us particularly when we are in trouble because that is when you can make the difference."
LUKEWARM WORLD CUP CAMPAIGNS
Brazil have their script - one involving locals suspending their anger at the eye-watering cost of the tournament held with a backdrop of rising inflation, urban gridlock and soaring crime - but there are no shortage of other teams and players lining up to take their place in the pantheon of soccer giants.
Argentina's Lionel Messi tops the list.
Considered by most to be the world's best footballer, the Barcelona phenomenon has never hit the heights at a World Cup.
Unless he does, as the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona have before him, there would always be a hint of a question mark over a career in which in every other way has touched the stars.
At the age of 26, a veteran already of two lukewarm World Cup campaigns, Messi has never really been embraced by Argentine fans. It doesn't help that he was brought up in Spain after local clubs allowed him to slip through their fingers.
But a triumphant World Cup in their biggest rival's backyard could elevate the 5ft 7in forward, four times World Player of the Year, to the level of the similarly diminutive but much-revered World Cup-winning Maradona in his homeland.
But Argentina are much more than Messi, who will have great support from the other three members of the "Fantastic Quartet" Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria.
"We're more together than ever because of the dream we all have," skipper Messi said after Argentina breezed past Slovenia in their final World Cup warmup.
The formidable Germans have their minds set on a slice of history for themselves. No non-South American team has triumphed in these parts, but Joachim Loew's stylish squad have observers lining up to say that spell is ready to be broken.
Without a major title since the 1996 European Championship, it has been quite a while between drinks for a nation used to toasting tournament winners, but with creative dynamo Mario Goetze at the heart of their machine, the wait may be about to end.
Another European powerhouse is not ready to relinquish its grip on the World Cup, however, and champions Spain will also be a formidable force.
Vicente del Bosque led La Roja to victory in Johannesburg four years ago and to the European title in 2012, and his side is still packed with some of the best passers in the game.
Some critics argue that the heart of that team is over the hill but there is new blood in the shape of Diego Costa, the Brazil-born striker whose call-up by Spain has been a dagger blow to the host nation.
Brazil's coach Scolari said Costa was "turning his back on the dream of millions" in choosing Spain over his homeland, but the Atletico Madrid forward could instead be embracing World Cup glory if Del Bosque can work his magic one more time.
Three more former winners will fight it out in Group D as one of Italy, England and surprise 2010 semi-finalists Uruguay will be going home early.
Uruguay, more specifically the hand of striker Luis Suarez, prevented Ghana becoming the first African nation to reach the semi-finals four years ago in South Africa.
The Black Stars are back again but, along with the other four African representatives, they will have to punch above their weight to shatter that toughened-glass ceiling.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)