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For Brazil, it’s not just about winning World Cup, it’s winning with style

June 12, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The biggest tournament on the planet got under way today. Police and protesters clashed again in Sao Paulo earlier in the day about six miles away from the stadium. There were protests in Rio as well.

But most of the attention on the opening day of soccer’s World Cup was focused on the first contest featuring the host country, Brazil.

Brazil breathed a sigh of relief after defeating Croatia 3-1 in a win that included two goals from its star striker, Neymar.

Jeffrey Brown has a preview, starting with some background, followed by a conversation recorded before today’s match.

JEFFREY BROWN: Soccer fans from around the world flocked to the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo today, as celebrations kicked off the 20th edition of the FIFA World Cup.

Supporters of the host team were out in force, revving up for the opening match of the competition, Brazil against Croatia.

MAN (through interpreter): I feel a lot of emotion, a lot of joy. It’s a pleasure to see all the world here. It’s very good.

JEFFREY BROWN: That, of course, comes after a mostly bad lead-up, featuring construction delays and accidents, and protests over the costs of hosting the World Cup.

Even as demonstrations continued today, the main event got under way, with 32 countries participating in the world’s most watched sporting event. Five-time champion Brazil is one favorite to take this year’s Cup. Another top contender, Spain, warmed up for the competition with a so-called friendly match last weekend in Washington, D.C., against El Salvador. That match and others around the U.S. drew large crowds, part of what soccer fans here hope is a continuing and growing trend to connect this country to the rest of the world’s intense love for the sport.

MICHAEL RAMIREZ: So much of the world plays. I think it’s a really important way to connect with somebody, with the — in the rest of the world in a way that the United States really hasn’t. The more we can connect on any level, I think it’s great. So I think soccer is just another way.

JEFFREY BROWN: For its part, the U.S. team, led by its new coach, former German star Jurgen Klinsmann, will play its first match on Monday, taking on Ghana. The World Cup will continue through July 13, when the championship match will be played in Rio.

And we get our own viewers guide from the Cup. It comes from Tommy Smyth, soccer analyst for ESPN, who will be featured on a nightly show during the matches called “ESPN FC.” And Matthew Futterman is a special senior writer covering us this for The Wall Street Journal. He joins us from Sao Paulo.

And, Matthew, let me start with you.

And with the host team, which is of course always a powerhouse, we’re talking before the first match. What are the expectations this time for Brazil?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, The Wall Street Journal: Well, for a country like Brazil, there’s only one expectation, and that’s to win the World Cup. That’s the way they go into these big tournaments. That’s what’s expected of them. That’s what hoped for, and anything less will be considered a failure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tremendous pressure on them, right, as always, especially in their own home nation?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Absolutely, tremendous pressure.

And with Brazil, what’s unique is that there’s not just tremendous pressure to win the games, but it’s to win them beautifully. It’s to play a style of soccer that comes with sort of acrobatics and heel passes and all sorts of fanciness that has enthralled generations of Brazilians. So they have to win and they also have to win with style.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so Tommy Smyth, broaden it out a bit. What other teams should people be watching? What are you — who are you watching?

TOMMY SMYTH, ESPN: Well, I’m going to be watching — I mean, Argentina certainly are a team that you’re going to have to watch.

They’re playing in South America. They have one of — arguably the best player in the world on it, Messi. You have got Portugal, who has arguably the second best player, or some people say the best player in the world, Ronaldo.

You have got the Italians, who are always there. The Germans are star-studded. Some people think the English are going to do it. So, there’s a host of teams to watch. There’s no shortage of good teams in this World Cup, believe me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tommy, you mentioned all the great and good teams. Are there any dark horses, any nontraditional powerhouses that might win this or might do really well?

TOMMY SMYTH: Well, I say just mark on your little notebook the name of Belgium, because Belgium has really come through qualifying in Europe. They were unbelievable. They’re an incredible team.

If the pressure and all the hype doesn’t get to them, Belgium could be your very, very dark horse for this World Cup. I fancy they are going to go a long way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Matthew, then there’s the U.S., of course, right?

And I know you have been following them here and down there. A new coach, he took some dramatic action, leaving off the squad one of the most famous — the most famous players, perhaps. What’s the situation for the U.S. team?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: I think the U.S. is feeling very good about themselves right now.

I was just with them on Wednesday. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the German you spoke about, he seems very relaxed, very excited. He has a very positive outlook. They’re going up against Ghana in their first game on Monday. Ghana eliminated the U.S. the last two World Cups. They’re determined to make that not happen for a third time.

This is an interesting team. It’s got several German-Americans on the team. But they have really sort of come together. They’re on a bit of a roll lately. They have won three games in a row, their three pre-tournament matches before they came here, and they’re really feeling good about themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tommy Smyth, what do you think about the chances for the U.S. team?

TOMMY SMYTH: Well, the key is how they do against Ghana.

If they lose against Ghana, I have a feeling they will be home before the postcards, because Portugal and Germany, I don’t see them getting anything out of it. So, my key for the U.S. is you have got to get — it’s a cliche, I know, but this is a must-win game. The first game to me is a must-win game.

And, you know, maybe third time is the charm, because Ghana has already knocked them out twice, so the U.S. certainly owe them one.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s funny, Tommy, because the coach, Klinsmann, is even telling everyone that the U.S. has no chance to win this thing, right?

So that’s a little unusual psychology going into a World Cup or any match.

TOMMY SMYTH: Yes, I’m not sure I ever played under a coach who told me I couldn’t go out and that he didn’t think I was going to win. Even when he didn’t think I was going to win, he told me I was going to win.

I don’t quite understand what Klinsmann is doing, but I will tell you one thing. If he wins, he is going to be a hero. But if he loses, I would hate to be walking in Mr. Klinsmann’s shoes afterwards.


JEFFREY BROWN: Matthew Futterman, just tell us the sort of general themes of this World Cup and of the world of football, soccer these days. One certainly is globalization, that these players, this is sort of a national competition. But these players, they play all over the world, don’t they?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Yes, they do play all over the world, although there is a little bit of a trend among the Brazilians, strangely enough, that since there’s more money in Brazil now, they actually play — some of the best Brazilians actually play in the domestic league.

But, yes, it used to be for years the South American players were sort of the magic, creative players, but Europe had these great powerhouse teams that were sort of technically more sophisticated in terms of strategy and that was what prevailed.

That is sort of — they have each drawn from each other in recent years, where the Europeans have become very sort of skilled with their feet and very technical in that sense, and the South American teams have gotten much more disappointed and much more organized, and I think you’re going to see here on South American soil some of those teams do very well.

Tommy mentioned Belgium as a dark horse. I would keep an eye on Chile and I would also keep an eye on some of the other South American teams, because they all feel very comfortable here, it’s very close to their home, and, remember, the Europeans have never lifted the World Cup trophy in this part of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tommy Smyth, what would you add to that just in terms of how the game itself has changed in terms the globalization and the nature of where players play these days?

TOMMY SMYTH: Well, they do call it the world game.

And they have taken it to another level. Believe me, all you have to do now is find a grandfather or a grandmother that actually came from one country, and you can play for another country. There’s a great example of a player, Diego Costa, who is playing for Spain. Now, keep in mind Spain already won the World Cup the last time around.

Diego Costa is a Brazilian who has signed to play with Spain, so the Brazilian is actually going back home to his own country to play for another country. So that in itself is just so unique, and I have never seen it happen before.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a little head-spinning, isn’t it, as we start this World Cup?

TOMMY SMYTH: It certainly is.

I mean, I know people out there are saying, yes, but you Irish guys did it for a long time. Look at all the English guys you took in and had play for them. But this is something different and I think it’s much more major. Believe me, it’s a different trend. And I don’t know. I think it’s one that’s going to continue. You are not going to see the end of it very soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, all to unfold over the coming weeks.

Tommy Smyth and Matthew Futterman, thank you both very much.

TOMMY SMYTH: Thank you very much.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Thanks for having me.

GWEN IFILL: Today on Twitter, we asked you: What do you find most beautiful about the game? Tweet us your response @NewsHour.