A ‘Brazil World Cup’ was always going to have a certain glamour that no other destination could match. Being held in a vibrant and exotic country which is obsessed with football, this summer’s festival of football was always going to be an event I just had to attend.
So on the second day of the tournament, despite being newly married, I flew out with my friend John for 11 days of football, sunshine and caipirinhas. This was my fourth World Cup and past trips (most notably South Africa) have taught me that following England matches is the low point in an otherwise great holiday.
We were, however, not going to totally make that mistake again and so picked our destinations before any matches were drawn. In total we planned six days in Rio and five more around Recife in the North West of Brazil. However once England v Uruguay got drawn to play in Sao Paulo, a mere one hour flight from Rio, we couldn’t resist the temptation of a day trip.
With no West Ham players in the World Cup, unless you count Pablo Armero, I didn’t even have the risk of mocking from all football fans that Rob Green’s error in South Africa brought on me in 2010. We were destined not to watch the England v Italy game in any form.
Originally the game got drawn on the day of our flight to Rio (but after our arrival time) but Fifa moved the match back the hours due to TV audiences in Europe so we were expecting to land mid-way through the first-half. As it happened the flight was delayed by an hour and a half, so an equally disgruntled group of England fans touched down in Rio, trying to work out who had the most reliable information source on how the game was going as it entered its final minutes.
Having consumed a few wines, my ‘amusing’ yelps of ‘goal’ were met with turned heads and anxious looks from people who didn’t know what to believe. Slowly enough sources confirmed the 2-1 defeat, and people left the plane slightly disappointed but justifying why they hadn’t bothered making the trip to Manus.
Until this point, my World Cup highlight was undeniably being in Sapporo, in northern Japan watching England beat Argentina 1-0 through a David Beckham penalty. It was a real ‘I was there’ moment. However, our first night in Rio probably equalled that.
We watched the Ghana versus USA match surrounded by locals in a reasonably low key street bar on the back streets of Copacabana before somehow blagging (well, finding a small gap in the barriers, out of view of the bouncers) our way into a private party on the best roof top bar in the city. I am pretty sure Patrick Viera, Sylvain Wiltord and Fabio Cannavaro, who we spotted straight away, hadn’t used the same means to gain entry.
As I looked out over the panoramic view of Copacabana, sipping a free beer, I was really hit by what it meant to be attending a World Cup in Brazil. It was a special moment. Our five days in Rio were the best of any World Cup I have been to. The corporate fan park could easily be avoided in favour of deck chairs on the beach.
There is something pretty magnificent sitting in the sunshine being served drinks at your seat, watching the football and pondering a half-time dip in the sea to cool off. My only disappointment from this time included not getting tickets to the Maracana and not witnessing a proper Brazilian victory celebration. Their 0-0 draw with Mexico, also viewed from the beach, left them a little flat.
I remember being in Japan struggling to find a place to watch matches on TV – for one match resorting to watch in the window of their equivalent to Dixons. In Rio every bar, restaurant, shop, office, laundrette seemed to have a TV showing whatever game was on. You can walk down the street and barely miss a moment.
Having been to Rio before we had already done most of the tourist attractions, and although we did have a repeat trip to Corcovado (the big Jesus statue) it left us free to watch football and just enjoy the atmosphere. And it was amazing. Other World Cups are very much split in the areas of interest geographically. Many people had previously referred to this as the ‘Rio World Cup’, such was the interest in visiting Brazil’s most popular city.
It left it with an amazing vibrancy created by fans of not just the teams playing in the city, but those from around the world, whether their country had qualified or not. It was a party. A wonderful celebration of football. Next we headed to Sao Paulo for a quick one day visit to the sixth biggest city in the world.
I was lucky, managing to be in the right place at the right time, to secure a face value ticket for the match from a fellow supporter whose friend couldn’t make it. Buyers were outnumbering sellers by a huge margin pushing prices outside the stadium up to levels around the £500 mark.
Sao Paulo stadium was not really for me. Indeed, the large open stands let most of the atmosphere out. I was surrounded by a mix of reasonably uninterested Brazilians and some enthusiastic Uruguayans. To this day I can’t decide which was worse. England performed how they so often do at World Cups, so sneaking in to the half-time hospitality suite for some food and a glass of red was probably the highlight!
It was again frustrating to see England try and do the right things, but just not do them well enough. Maybe a defeat was undeserved but they didn’t do enough to win either. I didn’t hang around long. A night out in Sao Paulo finished with a taxi straight to the airport (why spend money on accommodation when your check in time is 5.30am!) for a flight to Recife.
Next we had tickets for the Italy versus Costa Rica game. What was already a tight schedule to get from the airport to hotel to stadium was made worse by two events. Firstly they left my luggage in Sao Paulo before we realised we were staying opposite the hotel being used by Costa Rica.
The police had shut off the road so in the end we had police escort walk us through the barricades to drop off the single bag we now had at the hotel. Due to England’s result, we now found ourselves supporting Italy… so it was obvious how the game would finish. Italy were awful, it was very hot, and that is about all I really remember from a rather low key match.
The downside of the Brazilian love of the beautiful game is that they were very keen to attend as many matches as possible. Therefore many of the matches, not involving the Latin American sides still had more than 50 per cent of the attendance made up by Brazilians fans. It certainly didn’t help an atmosphere, and there were as many Brazil songs as there were from either of the two teams playing. The next day we hired a car and drove the four hours to a place called Praia de Pipa.
It is kind of a hippy beach town 100km outside Natal. When we arrived we still found it full of football fans though: mainly USA fans on their way to Recife, or Uruguayans on their way to Natal (again I wasn’t sure which was worse). It had beautiful beaches, great bars to watch matches and lovely accommodation. It was a fantastic two day stop off.
Next it was back to Recife for Mexico’s final group game with Croatia. Croatia needed a win to qualify while a draw would see Mexico through. The other large contributor to a fantastic occasion was Brazil kicking-off at the same time meant many locals with tickets were happy to sell them in favour of watching their team at home on TV. Mexicans could therefore snap up all the available tickets and meant we experienced a proper world cup atmosphere.
The crowd was probably made of about 70 per cent Mexican supporters while the rest were generally Brazilians trying to listen to their team on radios. For a while it looked as though Mexico might top the group, but Brazil scored some late goals to seal the number one spot as both progressed through to the last-16. It seemed as though there was an unofficial bank holiday whenever Brazil played.
They really do love their national team and, arriving back two hours after the match finished, I think many had used this time off to drink. A lot. Parties were in full swing and we had the privilege of meeting many characters who spent a lot of time giving us bear hugs and the like.
Brazil 2014 really did feel like a festival of football. I saw no aggravation or violence. The quality of football was excellent. It felt like I was attending the best party in the world.
But for the English, it was like one that, although we were more than welcome, we were not particularly invited to. They neither knew nor cared whether we were there or not. I am sure for other nations they will look back at Brazil 2014 and struggle to remember if England were involved or not. It was the world cup which justified my feeling that following the World Cup is better than following England in a World Cup.