CURITIBA, Brazil (AP) — Four years ago, the small South African town of Potchefstroom strung up welcome banners and draped the red and yellow Spanish flag from lampposts when the European champions came to train for the World Cup.
In the southeastern Brazilian city of Curitiba before this year's tournament, you wouldn't know the reigning champs are preparing on the outskirts of town. Curitiba also hosts four World Cup matches, but there is little indication in this city of 1.8 million.
"Look at that, not even a single flag on the street," said Emilio Mendonza, 47, as he stepped out of his store in the historic center for a glance.
Curitiba is littered in Brazilian green and yellow, but there are otherwise few hints of the World Cup.
"It's a fragile time to have the World Cup, a fractious moment in Brazil," said Mendonza, who sells lamps, desks and accessories. "Normally you would call up your friends to go out and watch the game, but everyone's kind of keeping to themselves and not wanting to show any excitement. It's better to just keep quiet."
Spain wraps up Group B play against Australia at the Arena da Baixada on June 23. Iran plays Nigeria, Honduras faces Ecuador, and Russia meets Algeria in the other matches here.
The cold, winter weather certainly doesn't help in heating up a population filled with anxiety surrounding potential protests.
"It's a difficult time. People want to get excited, but at the same time there's this feeling you have to hold back, as you never know what the other person is thinking, if they agree with the Cup being here," said Bruna Andrade, who was selling locally made beach shoes in a city market. "It's unusual."
— By Paul Logothetis — www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP
SAO PAULO (AP) — American midfielder Alejandro Bedoya made a point to find the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Liliana Ayalde, as she visited the team's World Cup home base.
Both Colombian-Americans, they were eager to trade a few pleasantries after the U.S. held an open training session at Sao Paulo Futebol Club on Wednesday.
Bedoya asked to pose for a photo. Ayalde left with an autographed postcard. She will attend the Croatia-Brazil World Cup opener on Thursday, then each of the U.S. Group G matches, starting Monday night against Ghana in Natal. There, she will be joined by Vice President Joe Biden.
"I was having a longer chat with one of the players who has a similar background to myself, so that was exciting," Ayalde said. "We thought we'd share our own heritage. That is a special thing."
Ayalde, a career diplomat with more than three decades of experience and a former ambassador to Paraguay, was appointed last year. She arrived in Sao Paulo on Wednesday morning. Ayalde also made a trip from her Brasilia base for the Americans' January training camp.
Ayalde's two daughters, Stefanie and Natalia, will take part in the second U.S. game — responsible for carrying the ball and flag before kickoff against Portugal in Manaus on June 22.
Some 200,000 tickets have been sold to U.S.-based fans, Ayalde said.
"We're prepared with the embassy and our different consulates to make sure that we serve our American citizens as best we can," Ayalde said.
— By Janie McCauley — twitter.com/JanieMcCAP
WORLD CUP FASHION
In the market for a minidress in emerald green spandex? Hankering for a halter top that appears to have been made from the national team's canary yellow jerseys? Pining for patriotic platform heels emblazoned with the Brazilian flag?
With the World Cup kicking off Thursday, almost every domestic clothing purveyor, from the humblest manufacturer to Brazil's chicest and most expensive labels, is selling clothing in the host country's colors. Finding apparel in other hues is a challenge at the moment. Even the pet shops are stocked with doggie sweaters, capes and jerseys in Brazil's green, yellow and blue.
A delicate crochet version of Brazil's team jersey sells for $110 at whimsical high-end label Farm — at least for those customers who can get their hands on the coveted item.
It's not just domestic brands attempting to cash in on the coming month of worldwide football mania. France's Lacoste has fielded a graphic patchwork polo shirt with blocks of blue, green and yellow that sells online for $167.
German sportswear brand Puma teamed up with edgy, London-based label Alexander McQueen to make an extra-exclusive version of the "Puma King" cleats, worn by soccer greats from Pele to Maradona. Only 100 pairs of the boots have been made, 70 in buttery chestnut-hued leather and 30 in gold lame, and none of them are expected to hit stores. Instead, they'll be handed out to special friends of the labels.
Versace fielded its own Brazil-themed T-shirt, a very Versace-esque explosion of arabesques, hothouse flowers and footballs, on sale at select boutiques worldwide for around $700, while Valentino recently presented a special edition sneaker emblazoned on the back with the Brazilian flag.
"It's a very clever strategy for these international brands," said Abraao Ferreira, a Brazilian-born luxury markets consultant. "Brazil's a really important luxury market now, and these World Cup items are a way of saying, 'We know who you are and we appreciate you.'"
— By Jenny Barchfield — twitter.com/JennyBarchfield
BERLIN (AP) — The countries competing in the World Cup were united by a common cause Wednesday: chocolate.
A day before the tournament kicks off, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited the ambassadors of all participating nations to his offices in Berlin. In the entrance to the Foreign Ministry, which had been converted to look like a pitch, Steinmeier gave each a life-size chocolate football decorated with their national flags.
The Cologne Chocolate Museum donated the brown-and-white chocolate balls.
Steinmeier wished each of the countries luck — something he apparently thinks Germany needs, too. Der Spiegel quoted the foreign minister as picking host Brazil to win the tournament.
Steinmeier told Spiegel "our team has every chance of doing well. Reaching the semifinals would make me happy; anything after that and I'd go nuts."
Associated Press reporters will be filing dispatches about happenings in and around Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. Follow AP journalists covering the Olympics on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_Sports/world-cup-2014