MATT & DAD’S BRAZILIAN TRAVELS … insiders’ view of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
MONDAY 7th JULY … the end of the World (Cup)
The World Cup was winding down in Salvador on Sunday, with just a few stray Costa Rican and Dutch fans meandering, like us, around the Pelourinho buying craft items. At the airport, I met a South Korean in the food court, taking my final country count to 30, my dream of being sat between a Honduran and an Ivorian on the flight to Lisbon not realised. A large queue, containing chirpy former Everton and Ireland midfielder Kevin Kilbane, snaked back from international security, armadillo mascots clutched by some, all knowing that, like the brave Ticos, their World Cup is over.
It has been a terrific month, but will I attend another World Cup? It’s probably more likely than the authorities in Natal finishing the facilities around the Arena das Dunas!
Matt’s team (3-4-2-1) of the World Cup (based on live matches):
Navas (Costa Rica);
Ambrose (Nigeria), Gonzalez (Costa Rica), Koscielny (France);
Yedlin (USA), Pogba (France), Herrera (Mexico), Asamoah (Ghana);
De Bruyne (Belgium), Sneijder (Holland);
Substitutes: Howard (USA), Holebas (Greece), Guardado (Mexico), Perisic (Croatia), Ruiz (Costa Rica), Robben (Holland), Ronaldo (Portugal)
SATURDAY 5th JULY … World Cup, ney more
Brazil had won the battle against Colombia, but lost their hero, best player and talisman. Neymar represents the skill and individuality that Brazilian’s seek from their footballing idols, a fact repeated on the back of around 90 per cent of named national shirts. We visited the important church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim where slightly macabre wax replicas of body parts needing curing hang in the Room of Miracles. Even divine intervention cannot heal a famous fractured vertebrae in time for tuesday.
Our ninth and final match was Holland v Costa Rica in the last of the Quarter Finals. There are swarms of vendors in Salvador and it was one of FIFA’s most controversial decisions that prevented them from selling their wares outside and inside World Cup stadiums. Undeterred, vendors have spilled into the surrounding streets and were thrilled to discover the national flags of the Quarter Finalists were both reordered versions of Esporte Clube Bahia’s colours. Never has constructing a replica bandera been so easy!
The first seventy minutes of an initially slow match were best remembered for spine-chilling chants in support of Neymar, the injured icon. You somehow cannot envisage a regional ground in England doing something similar for Wayne Rooney. With Costa Rica and the woodwork defending manfully, the Dutch belatedly injected some pace, but could not prevent the match slipping into the entertainment of extra time and eventually penalties. The psychology of a ‘specialist’ penalty stopper entering the fray gave Holland the edge and, after a clearly struggling Bryan Ruiz missed Costa Rica’s second penalty, a passage into the last four.
We were saddened that the romantic dream of the World Cup had ended, having seen it all begin in Fortaleza three weeks ago. A genuine Tico in the front row sobbed into his counterfeit flag, although Costa Rica take enormous credit for remaining undefeated against Uruguay, Italy, England, Greece and Holland. It was also our last World Cup night, suitably finishing with plastic cups of cold Skol lager (rubbish in England two decades ago, still rubbish in Brazil now) and friendly banter with Jon, Jo and Rod from yesterday’s Brazil match.
FRIDAY 4th JULY … all in one rhythm
This may be Independence Day in the United States, but the state of Bahia celebrates successfully expelling the Portuguese on 2nd July. The excitement of the Second Round match we witnessed the previous day flowed into the streets, with thousands parading and protesting about their issue of choice in a spectacular fusion of colour and sound. With 30p beers being drunk throughout the day, it is the sort of event that could easily get out of control, but the strong police presence and natural gregariousness of the locals ensured everything went smoothly.
We are renting a flat in San Antonio, on the northern edges of Salvador’s old town. This requires a little more self-resilience than a hotel and it was recommended that we travelled to Sete Portas (‘Seven Doors’) to resolve an adaptor problem. ‘Seven Doors’ was more Seven Sisters than another soulless shopping centre, with electrical and appliance shops spilling out onto the street, but we were soon back in a taxi laden with our successful under-the-counter purchase, cheap beer and melons. Unfortunately, all the streets had been closed around our flat and thousands of locals waiting for the parade were instead treated to the sight of two over-heating tourists lugging their shopping bags up the hill, well worthy of a photo according to several.
Friday was this week’s allocated Brazil Day. We watched the match with Rod, an Australian who had taken in 15 matches at the 2010 World Cup and Jon, an Aston Villa fan who arrived in Salvador on holiday seven years ago and liked it so much that he married a local woman, Jo, and stayed. Brazil were in control of the match until Colombia were awarded a late penalty. The bar owner took to the microphone and seemingly tried to rouse the partisan crowd to put James Rodriguez off the resultant spot kick. It didn’t work, but Brazil crept into a titanic semi-final against Germany.
TUESDAY 1st JULY … high entertainment in cat city
Our final destination is Salvador de Bahia, the capital of Brazil until 1763, and its cobbled streets and heady atmosphere were instantly a pleasing change from the concrete expanses of Brasilia. The city houses the greatest concentration of baroque architecture in the Americas and, for those who prefer feline to canine, a large number of cats litter certain streets in the historic Pelourinho. This lovely specimen owned a drum shop.
Salvador also houses, arguably, the best of the five World Cup stadiums that we have visited. The venues in Fortaleza and Recife were located far from the city centre and whilst stadiums in Natal and Brasilia were central they were not surrounded by anything of note. However, the Arena Fonte Nova is picturesquely situated in a small valley next to the Dique lake in the hub of the city. Although the stadium is modern, with the lake visible through one open end, the environs recall old style British grounds, surrounded by humdrum housing, with narrow entrances and the locals hanging out on walls watching the fans arrive.
I am also closely watching all the fans, looking to meet people from all 32 countries participating at this year’s World Cup. The highlight of Greece v Japan was finding a lone Iranian in Natal, I met a Cameroonian in the lift in our Brasilia hotel and, at the Arena Fonte Nova, I quickly introduced myself to a man wrapped in a giant Algeria flag. This leaves just three countries to complete my World Cup bingo card … Honduras, South Korea and, as the commentators here like to say, Costa da Marfimmmmmmm!
Our first match in Salvador was the Second Round tie between Belgium and the USA. We were sat above several clusters of boisterous Belgians, complete with inflatable devils’ horns and anti-American chants. In a match best remembered for other milestones, the stewards took a World Cup record of 78 seconds to notice an intruder, despite the Belgians and others voicing their disapproval, and eventually eject him from the pitch. The Red Devils left the stadium in buoyant mood, but all spectators were thrilled by an attacking match that provided 52 goal attempts and no clear winner until the very end of extra time.
MONDAY 30th JUNE … steps, cones and towers
We repeated our footsteps to the Estadio Nacional for France v Nigeria, the first of our two Second Round matches. Following disturbances at the Confederations Cup, the Brazilian government are taking no chances with security at the World Cup. We counted over 100 policemen on our short journey, mostly employed to look menacing on street corners with their guns or text their friends whilst sat in heavily armoured vehicles.
The World Cup ticket system is a complete lottery, unsure in whether you will be successful and, if you are, the seats you are allocated, the teams you will see play or the quality of the match you are granted. Our seats had all been very good to date, but our luck ran out today as we were situated way up in the Gods. The steep steps proved tough going for some of the predominantly Brazilian crowd but, fortunately, copious beer and soft drink spillages gave the smooth concrete a subtle stickiness that ensured no spectators toppled on to the pitch.
Your fellow spectators are also a random slice of Brazilian life, albeit heavily skewed towards the relatively affluent. Today, we were sat next to a double coincidence in Valerie, a journalist from Curtiba who had studied at Goldsmith’s and drank in my local, the legendary New Cross Inn. Most bizarrely, she was a Fulham FC regular who had worked as Clint Dempsey’s babysitter whilst living in London.
Fixed kick off times are a particular nuisance for time casual Brazilians. The first half was most notable for the late arrival of the locals sat around us, who then seemed more intent on improving the grip on our concrete precipice with a shower of sugary beverages than watching the patchy action. The crowd and match settled down in the second half, with Ogenyi Onazi’s injury, Antoine Griezmann’s introduction and the redeployment of Karim Benzema as a central striker paving the way for a comfortable France win. John Obi Mikel was back in his familiar role as a traffic cone long before the end of the match.
The large French contingent celebrated outside the Brasilia TV tower and, if you blurred your eyes a little, it brought back memories of the Eiffel Tower in summer 1998. The two best teams in Europe clash in Rio on Friday.
SATURDAY 28th JUNE … one, two, three, we always beat Chile
The first no football day of the World Cup gave us the opportunity to walk around the architectural marvels of Oscar Niemeyer (no, not Brazil’s forward-thinking midfield) dotted around Brasilia. The Congresso Nacional building has amazing, simplistic, lines and the Catedral Metropolitana beautiful, coloured, light, but my favourite was the Museu Nacional da República, with its celestial exterior and sweeping interior. Lucio Costa, the urban planner responsible for the city’s design, was obviously not a keen pedestrian as we negotiated six lane highways of charging traffic to travel short distances.
Saturday’s early Second Round match involved Brazil and, now knowing how the country grinds to a hault even on a working day, we were installed in Bar Brahma Brasilia a good hour before kick-off. João, a Corinthians fan from São Paulo, was our unintentional, yet gregarious, host, asking if he could “buy Howard Webb” (seemingly not) before settling on our spare tickets for France v Nigeria on Monday.
Glasses of frothy draft lager and plates of feijoada were rapidly being circulated in a distinctly middle class, but undeniably Brazilian, scene. Dad and I the only representatives from the northern hemisphere amidst the 350 strong crowd. In the tightest game of the tournament, home confidence was unwavering, almost blind to Chile’s impressive control and Mauricio Pinilla’s late shot that rebounded off the cross-bar to safety.
The inevitability of penalties led to João clutching his ‘lucky’ blue Brazil shirt, more in hope than certainty after seven strong caipirinhas had eroded his faith. Gonzalo Jara’s crucial miss from the tenth penalty resulted in an explosion of latent relief, a samba band launching into two hours of familiar hits, occasionally studded with vocal eulogies to erstwhile Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Julio Cesar. João recited one of his favourite chants “one, two, three … we always beat Chile” (it sounds less like a nursery rhyme in Portuguese!) The dreams of a nation remain.
THURSDAY 27th June … down and out in the Estadio Nacional
Brasilia has been the capital since 1960 and narrowly pipped Milton Keynes to be the first 20th Century city to be declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Brasilia is not very Brazilian. It is a strange fusion of the modern and the post-modern and, rather like The Crystal Maze, divided into separate zones, that clearly resembled the outline of an aeroplane as we flew in from Recife.
We are staying in the central Hotel Zone. The Estadio Nacional is located nearby and, thanks to the Brazilian predilection for closing all streets within shooting range on match day, we could comfortably walk to the stadium surrounds in around 15 minutes. This is a very pleasant change from the 36 station stops, two buses, two taxis and 30 minutes walk that a match at the Arena Pernambuco outside Recife involved.
Silvestre Varela’s last minute equalizer against the USA was heartily cheered as this gave our first match in Brasilia, Ghana v Portugal, added zest, with both teams needing to win well to qualify. It was a match laden with missed chances, but lacking in real quality as support strikers Eder (“he makes Altidore look like Pele” quipped one American) and Abdul Majeed Waris battled it out to put in the least convincing attacking performance.
From a fan’s perspective, the really interesting factor was watching an enormous, but almost entirely neutral Brazilian, crowd watch the match. The Brazilians may wear football shirts as fashion apparel but they really know their stuff, applauding good moves, rejecting time wasting and, most of all, wanting to enjoy the sporting experience. This seemed particularly so in Brasilia, where the locals have disposable income, but no credible club side to support.
From my perspective, this match also saw another reunion with the enigmatic Asamoah Gyan. I witnessed his lightning goal in Ghana’s first ever World Cup win in 2006 and struggles in front of goal at his home Africa Cup of Nations in 2008. Today, still looking ten years older than his age, he became the highest scoring African player in World Cup history, converting Kwadwo Asamoah’s brilliant left-wing cross. There are no certainties in African football, but I expect we will meet again in Morocco next year.
MONDAY 23rd June … samba and sombreros
Recife is by far the most interesting of the three northern coastal cities we have visited, with a charismatic old town, the colonial charm of nearby Olinda and fine eateries of beachside Boa Viagem. It is also a proper city, with the wider metropolitan population nudging four million and the Pernambucans retaining ownership of their city with dignity and humour. The central Fan Fest was attended mostly by Brazilians, including groups of girls warming up to a Saturday night out with Bosnia v Nigeria on the big screen. I even gained a cheap laugh from a few locals as a woman dropped a low value coin and it gently trickled into a drain by shouting ‘gooooooooooooooalll’!
We have shunned the hotels and are staying with a local couple (albeit at hotel rates) around the corner from the Mar Hotel. This was where Costa Rica stayed prior to their historic win over Italy and, from the hundreds of green shirts, a man riding a donkey with a chilli hat and a resident Aztec, Mexico were also doing so before their critical game against Croatia. As they waited for their heroes to arrive, the Mexicans entertained themselves by chanting at the passing buses, Dad was interviewed by the Diário de Pernambuco and I chatted to a television presenter. He explained that “the World Cup means everything for Mexicans. They don’t all earn very much, but they save and borrow just to support their team every four years”
Mexico v Croatia in the Arena Pernambuco was basically a home fixture for Mexico, with around 30,000 noisy Mexicans and the support of all the Brazilians. A tense, at times scrappy and often feisty first hour was interrupted by bursts of celebration every time mobiles alerted the crowd that Brazil had scored against hapless Cameroon. The match then exploded, with three goals, a red card for Ante Rebic and late Croatian consolation in the last twenty minutes. Mexico, with Hector Herrera running the midfield and, like Costa Rica and occasionally Chile, powerfully employing their renaissance of the wingback system, were through to the Second Round.
The bonhomie of the crowd in the stadium and on the train back spilled into the main square of Boa Viagem. Brazilians and Mexicans danced with each other to live rhythmic rock as a tropical breeze drifted in from the Atlantic. A Mexican said to me “for me, this is a Latin American World Cup”. With seven teams likely to qualify for the Second Round, you would not bet against him.
FRIDAY 20th June … romance rises from el grupo de la muerte
There are two games to every match in this World Cup. The first, for the players, occupies 90 minutes and any additional time. The second, for the fans, is trying to allow sufficient time to travel from the city centre to wherever the stadium happens to be located. The empty seats at the beginning of matches are partially due to Brazilian’s natural flexibility with time-keeping, but also testament to the sometimes sketchy transport options.
In Natal, the bus drivers went on strike and we crammed in a sweaty van with 20 Americans to reach the Arena das Dunas or took road-cramming taxis. We hardly made life easy for ourselves by seeing successive World Cup matches in two separate cities, but two taxis, a flight, a lift, another taxi, two suburban trains, a bus and a one mile walk later and we were at the Arena Pernambuco, just outside the urban sprawl of Recife, for Italy v Costa Rica.
Much of England may have been wearing blue (strange – what have the Italians ever done for us, apart from tiramisu and roads!) and hoping for three favourable results, but we and the Brazilian neutrals were firmly behind Los Ticos. Italy slowed the play, but Costa Rica pressed in midfield, were denied a clear penalty and the influential Bryan Ruiz crashed a header against the underside of the crossbar and over the goal-line. The stadium erupted once and then again as Costa Rica comfortably registered the best result in their history. We celebrated with a delighted Gustavo, the Anglo-Costa Rican we met in Fortaleza, who was sat near us again and with thousands of other Ticos.
We arrived back in southern Recife, six and a half hours later, to find cheering Costa Rica fans outside the hotel at the end of our road. We are staying 200 metres away from the team and were filmed by Deportes Repretel, the Costa Rican television channel, amidst the fervent celebrations. A man wearing a Team USA shirt wished me “¡Muchas Felicidades!” as I passed him clad in Costa Rican red. I responded with “I’m about as Costa Rican as you” but, to be honest, I felt half Tico on Friday night.
THURSDAY 19th June … turning Japanese, I really think so
It is something of a cliché to write about the friendliness of local people, but the Brazilians are really enjoying hosting an array of international visitors. As a Brazilian man said to me, “we knew people would come to Brazil to follow their own countries, but not that so many would visit to watch other matches.” Indeed, there are plenty of reddening Scandinavians, easily attracted to hot sun, cheap beer and summer football, in Brazil even though this is the first World Cup without Sweden, Denmark or Norway since 1982.
Old and new Natal
The Brazilian public have been thoroughly welcoming and their exuberance, helpfulness and knowledge of the game has more than compensated for some infrastructure challenges. We watched the Brazil v Mexico match with good natured supporters from both countries at the Fan Fest in Natal, curiously located far from any transport links. In the absence of taxis, we were looking rather stranded by the side of a main road before a local couple, with more generosity than English, gave us a lift into the city centre. Others have helped us with directions, charged off on a motorbike to find us a taxi and offered us sympathy, humour and complimentary beer as England were swiftly dispatched by Luis Suarez.
Poundland England flag in happier days
Brazilian life revolves around football, not the reverse. Juliana, a law student we met, was amazed to discover that the entire working populace in England were not given time off to watch the national team play. In Brazil, everything shuts down for an hour before and after kick off when the Seleção play and, during the World Cup, public service workers in the northern cities have been granted leave every time their city hosts a match.
Japan v Rest of the World on Ponta Negra beach … it finished 0-0
Brazil’s football addiction has been reflected in the attendances at the group matches, previously a hard sell in South Africa. Greece v Japan did not look great on paper, but the Natal residents became Japanese for one night only, wearing karate outfits, face paint and, in one spectacular case, dressing up as a giant Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, the game was a predictably torrid affair even before Greece were reduced to ten men and averaging just one pass every minute in the second half. Georgios Karagounis’ last touch, launching the ball 50 yards into touch, summed up the second worst match of the tournament.
TUESDAY 17th JUNE … I believe that we will win
Natal is undoubtedly one of the strangest choices of host city. This spread out city, shaped around the Atlantic coastline and its sweeping sand dunes, seems more suited to gentle tourism than holding major sporting events. The majority of fans are based in the southern suburb of Ponta Negra which, with its golden beach, strong breeze and mediocre international restaurants, could be a seaside resort anywhere in the world.
Natal hosts four group matches at the Arena das Dunas, named in homage to the scenery, but also the unintentional sand pit that sits outside the stadium alongside part-built bridges and roads that will probably remain unfinished long after the World Cup has ended.
Our first match in Natal was Ghana v USA and the fact that some 20,000 Americans were in town guaranteed a terrific show of colour and bravura. Their confidence was unwavering, despite being rank outsiders for Group G and the many beachside bars were over-flowing with optimisim. “We’re going to f**king win the bitch” was one excitable American’s pre-match prediction.
The atmosphere at the impressive stadium was crackling, from the rhythmic beats of a sizeable Ghanaian contingent to a rousing Star Spangled Banner that was still reverberating around the stadium when Clint Dempsey struck the fifth fastest goal in World Cup history. The nerveless chant of “I believe that we will win” was only momentarily unhinged by a Ghana team that was finer in methodical technique than variety in approach play. On the final whistle, an Elvis in the front row held aloft yet another replica of the famous trophy as the USA secured a hard-fought victory to rapturous acclaim.
SUNDAY 15th JUNE … a World Cup served five ways
There are a number of different ways to watch a World Cup. We have met plenty who are following their nations alone, scenesters in Rio intent on caipirinhas on a football-framed beach, several based for all the matches in one city (Fortaleza being a particularly good spot) and a few, like us, sashaying around this vast country, taking in different cities, sights and atmospheres.
Sympathy may not be free flowing, but in the last ten days we have been on a punishing schedule, taking five flights amounting to nearly 24 hours and becoming intimately acquainted with the various routes to and from Rio airport. Today we embarked on a nine hour journey across the flat scrubland of the North East, over-sized cacti punctuating the dark skies. Travel is not all glamour and the highlight of our day was a packet of wafers in a car park somewhere between Fortaleza and Natal. The pace, like Wayne Rooney in the Amazonian rainforest, lessens somewhat now, with eight games in four cities over three weeks.
The last way to watch the World Cup is, of course, the normal way, with a scattering of cats and country-themed food in my lounge. It is certainly harder to follow when watching every match in a different place with myriad audiences, but it’s all part of the Brazilian experience. I’m also getting quite used to picking up the occasional insight from Portuguese commentary, rather than redundant drivel from Andy Townsend.
SATURDAY 14th June … tico that and party
There was a buzz around the city of Fortaleza as it prepared to host its and our first World Cup match, Uruguay v Costa Rica. The amount of government money committed may still be controversial. However, it was a proud moment for the first city to abolish slavery in Brazil and now the popular domain of holidaying Brazilians to be the focus of the world’s attention for a couple of hours.
The Castelao is a mammoth bowl of a stadium, incongruously surrounded by low-rise brick houses and situated in the far southern suburbs of the city. The initial World Cup experience was a testing one, with a two kilometre walk in the searing mid-afternoon sun, anaconda-like queues for overwhelmed security and bars strangely shut or under-stocked. The Castelao has the fourth largest capacity of the World Cup stadiums and the large number of ticket offers indicated that, although busy, an impromptu football tourist could have easily gained entry for cost price or less.
After meeting a Uruguayan Fulham fan yesterday, we sat next to Gustavo from Chichester, one of a small number of Costa Ricans resident in England, and his Arundel-born wife. He was lamenting at half-time, but an hour later celebrating the shock result of the tournament, Costa Rica’s first win over Uruguay in nine attempts, along with around five thousand Ticos, the support of the Brazilian neutrals and Dad and I in our brilliant red national team shirts purchased from Sports Direct in Lewisham.
It was a fabulous second half, but the dilemma on our hands after the match was whether to risk the packed shuttle buses back to the centre or find somewhere local to watch England v Italy. A random widescreen television on the edge of a dormant six-lane highway provided the answer and we settled on plastic chairs in front of the match with two other English guys we had met at the Fan Fest the previous day and an international crowd.
It was a surreal setting, with acres of tarmac, the imposing stadium and celebrating Ticos offering a bizarre backdrop. This was further enhanced by a Mexican cycling past on a ten foot bicycle and, even more strangely, returning on a six foot unicycle several minutes later! It seemed as if we were sitting outside someone’s house, confirmed when I went to the bathroom, skirting around mathematics text books and girls watching telenovelas. Beer ran out sometime during the first half, but the owner’s sons soon returned on bicycles with a new stock of Skol, ready to sell large bottles to thirsty viewers at an inflated five Reais (£1.40)
It was reassuring to see genuine locals benefit from the tournament. The sharp hotel prices may only renumerate the already relatively affluent but everyone, from the hawker selling naff wooden parrots (Dad bought one) to the thin, hollow-eyed man who politely asked if he could take the remainder of our prawn rice, should get something back from Brazil’s investment.
FRIDAY 13th JUNE … World Cup fireworks
The World Cup has rocked into action with three good games and an unexpected mauling. On Thursday, I tried my hardest not to be distracted by the endless hawkers, circling helicopters and thousands of fans of all colours whilst watching the opening game on Copacabana beach. Brazil edged the match, but Croatia’s fluid midfield took more plaudits than the referee. The fireworks that lit up the stunning Rio skyline after Brazil’s equalizer certainly felt more in relief than in celebration.
The morning was spent at Christ the Redeemer, the famous art deco statue that guards the city. It was awash with fans from different countries, all converging on the country’s most famous landmark, beaming with smiles that matched the beautiful morning sun. Even before a ball had been kicked, we had met fans from over half of the 32 participating nations. We were particularly pleased to add some Bosnians to the collection underneath the statue and I will cross several roads to hug any Iranian that happens to cross my path.
This trip does have its fair share of lunatic flights and we arrived at our Fortaleza hotel in the numbing early hours of Friday morning. Breakfast coffee was just re-awakening our senses when the man clad in a Uruguay shirt behind us introduced himself as Carlos Castellanos, a long-term Fulham FC fan who, although now based in Spain after a long London stint, was following the country of his birth in Brazil. Plenty of friendly chatter about Fulham and Bryan Ruiz was the perfect introduction to the city,
The fans have been in great form throughout the build up and early days of the tournament. The long promenade that protects Fortaleza’s beaches from the jarring traffic and soaring high-rises has been a magnet for a large number of Uruguayans and surprisingly sizeable Costa Rican contingent. Both sets of fans, along with the locals, took great delight in the Dutch dismantling of Spain, independence may have been won 200 years ago, but memories remain.
WEDNESDAY 11th JUNE … 64 years of hurt
For a country that has won the World Cup five times, it is somewhat surprising that Brazil are still haunted by their defeat on home soil to Uruguay in 1950. Our hotel owner explains “I was not born then, but my father made sure I knew the significance of the match”, which has spawned a multitude of books, one chillingly entitled Anatomy of a Defeat. There is huge pressure on the hosts and, whilst some are looking for spiritual backing, others are taking a more light-hearted approach towards the tournament with branded hot dogs in Cinelandia and a fabulous mural (with a sulking Messi out of shot in the corner!) in Santa Teresa.
This afternoon we visited the fabled Maracana, scene of that defeat when in its previous incarnation. My local friends seemed indifferent to the new stadium, citing steep prices and a muted atmosphere for all but the biggest matches. It’s still an imposing sight, even with barriers in place for the seven matches it is hosting, although there are some last minute preparations still taking place. Signs are being concreted into place, FIFA approved bunting is being draped over fences and a new ticket booth and exit to the nearby metro are hastily being constructed.
However, some of the construction workers seemed more intent on selling their complimentary tickets to Spain v Chile (see above trading) than working. Indeed, the fastest mover in and around the stadium was one of several resident cats, who narrowly missed pouncing on a dozy pigeon. Let’s hope tomorrow’s action is even more exciting.
TUESDAY 10th JUNE … a South American World Cup
One of this World Cup’s major draws is its location. If one country was defined by its sport,
then that country would be Brazil. However, for many other South Americans, this is also
the first time in a generation that travelling to follow their nation has been close to achievable.
There are three countries, all growing in confidence, prosperity and identity,
that are particularly buoyant in their respective colours in Brazil.
The first is Chile. With a strong showing in the last tournament, Sampaoli’s men are looking even more vivacious this time around, with the Italian-moulded trio of Vidal, Isla and Alexis Sanchez assisted by a strong supporting cast. We encountered plenty of proud Chileans at the Argentina-Brazil border, doing their best to party amidst the grey concrete and dead pan security guards, complete with replica World Cup and enthusiastic chanting. Such humour will be much needed on the lengthy drive to Cuiaba for their opener against Australia.
The second team embracing their first World Cup since a trio of appearances in the 1990s is Colombia and their fans have lit up Rio with their colour and good nature. A much misunderstood country of beguiling beauty, they have moved away from the shadow of pulling out of hosting the 1986 World Cup and the narcotic-fuelled lawlessness that led to the tragic death of Andres Escobar in 1994 and countless others. Like Chile, they have a fine team and, even without the brilliant Radamel Falcao, they should be backed by their fervent support to qualify from Group C.
The third well-followed Latin team is Mexico, unsurprising given its population of some 120 million, developing economy and strong footballing traditions. A man dressed as the iconic golden eagle has already been spotted on Ipanema beach. We will, undoubtedly, see many more Mexicans in the northern cities where they will play their group matches, with thousands, including unlikely Mexicans Dad and I, cheering them on in their final game against Croatia in Recife.
SUNDAY 8th JUNE … to Copa or not to Copa?
That is the question in Brazil, where thousands are still demonstrating against the Copa
but passionately want the national team to succeed.
Certainly, the much-derided organisation is finally falling into place. Immigration and baggage reclaim was
rapid, although perhaps not quick enough for Ivory Coast midfielder Cheikh Tiote who looked as if he was about to pick up an early yellow card for tackling the conveyer belt. The glorious sandy curve of Copacabana beach is swept from litter and construction continues at pace on the enormous Fan Fest which has a fighting chance of being ready to broadcast the opening match on Thursday.
Polyester-clad fans are trickling into Rio, the natural hub for the south of the country and the main international gateway for most international travellers. American fans are playing up their chances, Colombians cautiously playing down theirs. A Chilean group atop Sugerloaf mountain misconstrued my sketchy Spanish for “I have a dual forecast on Chile and Spain to qualify from Group B” for
“I think Chile are likely champions”, leading too much overt positivity and filming of strange English tipster.
The yellow and green of Brazil is already ubiquitous as Dad found early on our first morning.
But what about the ethics? I met some energetic and eloquent punk rock fans (loving the dirty fuzz and Anglo-anthems from the likes of the Cockney Rejects, Sham 69 and Stiff Little Fingers) at a party in and outside a clothes shop in upscale Ipanema. These guys, friends of my friend Guy, detest the corruption and waste from a mammoth Copa and predict further protests in the cultural and political centres of Sao Paulo, Rio and Brasilia. But what if Brazil win and keep winning I asked. “We love football, but hate the government.” It seems that this, of all tournaments, needs a strong home performance to prevent the World Cup being over-shadowed by local dissent.
THURSDAY 5th JUNE … Matt’s World Cup tips
The bags are packed, the winter sun is shining in the late 20 degrees in Rio and the tickets have
finally arrived. But who do I reckon will prosper? It’s hard to look past Brazil (3/1) as winners, with
a fine defence, balance in midfield and an unbeaten competitive home record that runs back to 1975. Spain (6/1) probably offer more value but, of course, the two could meet in an almighty 2nd Round clash.
Top scorer is always an interesting each way bet and one of my favourites, with returns on Milan Baros,
David Villa (twice), Fernando Torres and Zlatan in recent tournaments. My pick is Gonzalo Higuain (22/1), the Napoli striker with a strong scoring record, including nine goals in qualifying. A favourable draw
gives Argentina a fabulous chance of reaching the semi-finals for the first time since 1990.
As for outsiders, I fancy an accomplished Bosnian team to have an impact on their debut
and they are a reasonable bet to qualify and then reach the quarters (4/1). An in-form Eden Dzeko
could terrify the defences of Iran and Nigeria and is 28/1 to be top Premier League goalscorer in Brazil
ahead of the likes of recovering Aguero, Suarez and Van Persie and a raw Lukaku.
Mexico, Chile and Ghana are all outsiders who have good chances of qualifying from their groups. And,
for the unexpected worst team, how about Ecuador, terrible in qualifying outside high altitude
Quito, to concede the most goals (40/1)!
WEDNESDAY 4th JUNE … bilhetes?
The pleasingly disorganised Africa Cup of Nations in 2008 saw us acquire tickets from German tourists,
random Ghanaian contacts on street corners and through the verified method of the humble Post Office.
I was expecting more from FIFA, but they are a clunky beast, a lumbering dinosaur wanting to break out
of its Jurassic park and uneasily into new landscapes, like summer football in the Middle East and efficient
ticket delivery. So, with two days to our flight and just over a week to the first match, most of Japan and
some of the southern UK were still waiting for their tickets.
However, much like a Brazilian stadium construction manager, FIFA cut it very fine and we did not
have to undertake a wild ticket chase through industrial parks across northern Brazil. Now, we just
have to offload those duplicate tickets to the knock out matches!
2 – MON 16 JUNE – GHANA v USA – NATAL
3 – THURS 19 JUNE – GREECE v JAPAN – NATAL
4 – FRI 20 JUNE – ITALY v COSTA RICA – RECIFE
5 – MON 23 JUNE – MEXICO v CROATIA – RECIFE
6 – THURS 26 JUNE – PORTUGAL v GHANA – BRASILIA
7 – MON 30 JUNE – 2ND ROUND – FRANCE v NIGERIA – BRASILIA
8 – TUES 01 JULY – 2ND ROUND – BELGIUM v USA – SALVADOR
9 – SAT 05 JULY – QUARTER FINAL – HOLLAND v COSTA RICA – SALVADOR
A World Cup in Brazil! With FIFA intent on gifting tournaments to the highest bidder, it was
something of a retrospective relief that there was no decision for them to make back in 2007. The
only credible bidders, Brazil, were given the opportunity to host the first South American World Cup
in 36 years. Football and travel has always been a potent combination for me (see archived evidence from
Germany 2006, Ghana 2008 and the Europa League run of 2010) so our TAP tickets to Rio were bought a
year in advance. It didn’t end up saving us much money, but it meant we were bound for Brazil before
even Hodgson had thought of Andros Townsend as an England saviour.
Dad, meanwhile, was keen to experience his first World Cup since England 1966, when he watched all
of the victorious home team’s matches at Wembley, including the epic final etched on every fan’s
memory (but surely only around 20,000 or so alive today who witnessed it live). The front cover of
the tournament programme is a design classic.
Our tactic was simple, to try and see as many matches as possible. We focussed our applications on
the cluster of relatively nearby north eastern and central host cities, looking to visit the likes
of Fortaleza (the biggest city you’ve never heard of) and unlikely capital Brasilia. We picked up
7 matches in the initial draw – and a further 2 in the second application phase – which meant a
nervy Friday evening was spent watching the draw hoping to avoid Australia and Algeria and not being
granted stolid Switzerland as our only seeded team.
I had to be reasonably content with our span of games, involving teams from all continents and the
only shocker on paper (Greece v Japan) should at least prove close and crucial in a tight Group C.
There remains a chance of seeing any of the 32 teams compete in our three knock out matches, although
a very low one in the case of Australia (66/1 to win Group B, but don’t bother with that outside bet!)