June 09, 2014

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) The World Cup kicks off Thursday and soccer fans from Rio de Janeiro's slums to southern India's playgrounds have been shining with their passion for the sport.

While national teams are arriving in Brazil, some in Latin America have set out to travel in the most unconventional ways to witness what they describe as a once-in-a-lifetime event. Some Chilean soccer fans built a wood-framed trailer from scratch to travel together and save money on lodging and meals.

The obsession has even spread to the animal kingdom. An elephant with Brazil's flag painted on its trunk and belly kicked a ball guided by its keeper at an elephant camp in the Thai province of Chiang Mai. In Colombia, shepherds guided two teams of sheep representing Brazil and Colombia to play a match as part of a celebration of local craftsmen who make wool ponchos.

Boys in poor slums exchanged World Cup album stickers while others played the game in small courts near Maracana. On a hillside in the Mangueira slum, a boy flew a kite of Brazil's flag.

In the final days before the World Cup, players have been training and preparing for the tournament in friendly matches. The Belgian and Tunisian teams braved a hail storm at a match at King Baudoin stadium in Brussels. Meanwhile, Brazil's star Neymar joked around with teammates Daniel Alves and Fred after a practice session at the Granja Comary training center in Teresopolis, north of Rio.

It hasn't all been fun. Demonstrations and strikes are being staged by Brazilian unions that are using the tournament as leverage to demand better salaries.

Subway workers on strike in Sao Paulo to seek pay raises clashed with police at a metro station in the city, which is hosting the tournament's opening match, to demand a raise. The union walked out on Thursday and insists it will keep up the strike, which has caused traffic chaos in Brazil's largest city.

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