Football: Brazil face Japan in Confederations Cup opener

After months of debate as to whether Brazil could meet the logistical challenge of staging a major sporting event, the country on Saturday prepared to kick off the Confederations Cup with the opening match against Asian champions Japan.

The hosts, five-time world champions, are using the event, spread across six cities, as a dress rehearsal for next summer's World Cup, when 12 venues will host 32 teams compared with just eight participants at the Confederations tournament.

Brazil's new Estadio Nacional was to host a spectacular opening ceremony designed by artistic director Paulo Barros, a two-time award-winner at the Rio carnival, before the teams take to the field at 4 p.m. (1900 GMT).

The build-up to the tournament, which ends June 30, has been marred by at times violent protests in several major cities, including the capital itself, Rio de Janeiro and business hub Sao Paulo, with many citizens angry at the multi-billion-dollar investments required to stage sporting events while acute social inequality festers.

Police made hundreds of arrests late Thursday in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre after thousands of youths blocked main streets to protest hikes in public transport fares which already outstrip those in many European cities.

Authorities in Sao Paulo condemned acts of vandalism by angry youths while promising an investigation into charges of police brutality.

Many people are frustrated at the millions being spent on the football facilities rather than on reducing the income gap.

In all, Brazil is set to shell out some $15 billion (11 billion euros) through to the World Cup. Rio then will host the 2016 summer Olympics, and the city has seen real estate and rental prices soar to exorbitant levels, with some observers predicting a corrective crash after the sporting caravan has moved on.

Friday saw protests in Brasilia by opponents of urban reform amid claims that tens of thousands of people have been displaced as Brazil overhauls its sagging infrastructure, while health workers protested slumping purchasing power and poor working conditions.

The Brazilian government has drafted 3,700 troops to bolster security in the capital for Saturday's match, with as many military police also on hand in a billion-dollar operation covering the six venues as a whole.

Brasilia governor Agnelo Queiroz told reporters that the implementation of the security plan "shows that Brazil is fully able to host events on this scale" -- although the scale of the World Cup will be vastly larger.

Ahead of the game, Sepp Blatter, president of world football's governing body FIFA, met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

"It was a good opportunity (to discuss the event)," said Blatter. "This first match is a very important one and I'm sure it will be a great success."

-- 'The moment of truth for Brazil' --

Brazil's O Globo newspaper noted that "now is the moment of truth for Brazil," a three-time winner, including in the last two editions in 2005 and 2009.

Japan apart, the hosts will meet Italy and Olympic champions Mexico in their group with world champions Spain expected to win Group B, which also contains South American champions Uruguay, African champions Nigeria and minnows Tahiti.

Legendary star Pele said Friday he believed his compatriots are not strong enough to win the event and urged the team instead to set a solid foundation for next summer, when Brazil will host its first World Cup since 1950.

The eight teams are divided in two groups of four, with the top two teams from each group reaching semi-finals.

If Brazil win Group A, they will travel to Belo Horizonte -- for a June 26 semi-final against either Uruguay or Nigeria, assuming Spain win Group B.

"We need to beat Japan," coach Scolari said Friday. "Losing the first game puts you in an very uncomfortable position. If you lose the first game at home it's just horrible, horrible," he said, harking back to when his former Portugal side lost their Euro 204 opener at home to Greece.

Brazil have beaten Japan seven times and drawn two other meetings in nine contests since 1989.

Some 355,000 Brazilians and foreign tourists are expected to watch games in the six host cities: Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza, Recife, Rio and Salvador. That figure is predicted to treble for the World Cup.

FIFA said Friday 739,176 tickets had been sold with 120,111 still on sale, though Saturday's match and the final are already sellouts.