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Rooting against the home team in soccer-crazed Brazil

By Asher Levine

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Millions of Brazilians will be cheering like crazy during the World Cup, but not all of them for Brazil.

With kickoff two weeks away and tensions simmering over the costs of hosting the month-long soccer event, some are showing their anger by saying they will root against the national team, perhaps Brazil's most prominent symbol on the global stage.

"Never before has the World Cup incited these feelings of hatred among Brazilians," said Ugo Giorgetti, a prominent filmmaker and soccer commentator. "There are people who love soccer, who love Brazil, but are cheering against the team like they've never cheered before."

The "Brazil haters" stand in sharp contrast to the typical caricature of Brazilian fans decked out in green and yellow face paint, chanting and screaming for their team to the rhythm of pounding samba drums.

"I'm cheering for Holland," said Marco Silva, a 33-year old consultant from the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. "If Brazil is champion, all the corruption around the tournament will be forgotten. The country won't wake up."

Most Brazilians will indeed rally behind the team as it seeks a record sixth World Cup victory, but the government is worried critics will take to the streets in the tens of thousands and hurt the country's image.

This week, angry protesters banged on the bus as players left Rio de Janeiro for training camp.

Detractors say the World Cup - with its overpriced stadiums, delayed or undelivered infrastructure projects and potentially embarrassing organizational problems - has done more harm than good by taking funds away from social programs and more important investment projects.

For them, a swift end to Brazil's run in the tournament would help the country refocus on more pressing needs and maybe even stoke political change.

"I and many people I know are rooting for Brazil to lose early, though not everyone is open about it," said Edson Alves, a 52-year old chemist and lifelong soccer fan. "It's sad, but right now I'm thinking more about Brazil the country and not Brazil the soccer team."

Alves, like many others rooting against the team on social media, is a harsh critic of President Dilma Rousseff, who has cast the World Cup as a golden opportunity to showcase a modern Brazil. He hopes a defeat in the Cup will weaken support for Rousseff ahead of her re-election bid in October.

SOCCER AND POLITICS

While recent history shows little correlation between a World Cup title and an election victory, few Brazilians are convinced of that.

In 1970, during the bloodiest period of a 1964-1985 military dictatorship, General Emilio Medici rode a wave of popularity as Brazil's team, helmed by Pele and widely considered the greatest ever, brought home a third World Cup title.

Pro-democracy activists at the time urged Brazilians to turn against the national team but most were too enthralled by the "jogo bonito," or "beautiful game" of their homegrown heroes.

Brazil is perhaps the world's most popular soccer team, associated with a roster of legends such as Pele, Ronaldo, Zico, Socrates, Romario and now Neymar.

Many Brazilians, however, tend to harbor a cooler attitude toward the yellow and green jersey.

Part of that is due to a weaker connection nowadays between fans and players, most of whom play club soccer in Europe or even further afield. While every player on the 1970 team played in Brazil, only four do on the current squad.

Still, the World Cup comes only once every four years, and if last year's Confederations Cup is any indication, attitudes could change if the Brazilian side puts on a dazzling display.

The tournament, hosted in Brazil as a dry run to the World Cup, was marked by the largest street protests the country had seen in decades. Despite the tumult, most Brazilians got behind the team as it fought its way to the title.

More distant history also suggests that "Brazil hatred" may only go so far once the ball starts rolling.

"My friends were among those who urged others to root against Brazil in 1970," Giorgetti recalled. "No one made it past the first 15 minutes."

(Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray)

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