I got back from Brazil last night, after a sightly epic journey which went Sao Paulo-Porto Alegre-Lisbon-Amsterdam. I left a place where it was winter and came back to summer, yet the temperature actually dropped by five degrees on my return. Go figure.
I had a brilliant time in Brazil. Before I left, I told myself that I was going to the World Cup first and Brazil second. And that was the case. We watched football every day – yes, even the days we didn’t have match tickets – but in no way did that feel inappropriate for an international holiday. In any other situation, I would look down on people who would sit in sports bars for hours on end drinking beer in places like Barcelona or Bangkok. Here it felt like a vital part of the experience.
If you call yourself a football fan and can spare a few grand (I’m going to detail how much going to the World Cup costs in my next post) then I can wholeheartedly recommend attending a World Cup at least once in your life. Even for someone like me, a person who is more a sports fan in general and doesn’t know the intricacies like goal averages and transfer prices. I worried a little bit beforehand that my lack of knowledge would hold me back a bit, but that wasn’t the case at all.
If you’re from a country that calls the game ‘soccer’ (like mine), you probably have a bit of a picture in your mind of what a football fan looks like. He (as I doubt you’d think the fan is a she) would be a bit rough, travel in a pack and carry flares everywhere. He wouldn’t be trusted near an opposition fan nor be served an alcoholic beverage inside a stadium. Hey, he might not be even allowed in the stadium; perhaps he’s obtained a neat little collection of stadium bans since his teens.
That image couldn’t be further from the truth, if what I saw during my travels is anything to go by. I saw my fair share of fans, the majority being Brazilian, Chilean, Argentinian, Dutch, Australian, American and French (basically because of our schedule). I saw one small scuffle between a Brazilian and Chilean and that was it. I sat in the middle of a Dutch section at the Holland vs Australia game and was congratulated by Dutch fans after Tim Cahill’s goal and was told ‘good game’ after they had won.
The Chileans sitting around us a few days later belted out their national anthem (which is one of the most stirring anthems I’ve ever heard, I wanted to learn the words and join in) and chanted ‘Chi- Chi- Chi, Le- Le- Le, Viva Chile!‘ on repeat, yet clapped the Dutch goals and then the fans after the match. And just before we left on Wednesday night, we watched a group of Nigerians and Argentinians battle it out on a foosball table.
The locals weren’t one-eyed, either. ‘HOL-LAND, HOL-LAND,’ they would yell on the subway when they would see the tall, orange Dutchman by my side. Others would reel off as many Dutch players as they could, usually followed by a ‘very good’ or something similar. Some would swap shirts, particularly with the lesser-fancied nations. Many Brazilians have also adopted second teams, and would wear their colours. The most popular seemed to be Holland, Germany and France. I even spied a kid wandering around in a Ghana jersey, I reckon because he liked the colours.
We watched matches everywhere; at two stadiums, on the street peering into a cafe, in a hotel lobby, special viewing areas at airports, waiting for the train to take us up to Christ the Redeemer, a hipster microbrewery, a local open-air bar in Flamengo and even at Copacabana Beach.
The open-air bar was probably my favourite place to watch it, bar the stadiums. As we sipped cairpirinhas and watched France demolish Switzerland 5-2, locals would stop on the street and peer over the tables, desperate to see what had caused all the shouting and carrying on. Some would be carrying briefcases, others would be shirtless and have footballs under their arms. I couldn’t stop smiling at it all, and it wasn’t just because of the caipirinhas (which are SO STRONG. Why had I not been told of this before?).
We also managed to walk through the centre of Sao Paulo – a megacity of 20 million people – and not see a soul on the streets. We had just returned from the Holland vs Chile match and were looking for somewhere to eat and watch a bit of the Brazil vs Cameroon game, but we couldn’t find a single place open. All the shutters were down, yet we could hear the televisions from the footpath. Eventually we found a Chinese restaurant that was open, where an entire extended family were huddled around a TV set, shouting excitedly to one another.
We pretty much had to tap one of them on the shoulder to get them to notice us. They fed and watered us and we all watched the match together. Nevermind that they were barracking in Cantonese, these guys were as obsessed as any other Brazilians. The kids ran around with Neymar printed on their backs and their uncle scared them with a vuvuzela. Again, I couldn’t stop smiling.
Not every local was enjoying the World Cup, however. There was anti-FIFA graffiti in every city we visited and people handing out pamphlets with similar sentiments in Porto Alegre. I found the much-documented gap between rich and poor the most stark in Sao Paulo, where homeless people were pretty much stepped over just outside the FIFA Fan Fest (a large public festival in each of the playing cities).
This is one of the reasons why I’d like to go back to Brazil one day, when the world isn’t watching as closely anymore. I’d like to see a bit of the north – Salvador especially tickles my fancy – and re-visit Rio de Janeiro, a place I don’t think I could ever tire of.
Will I go to another World Cup? I don’t see why not. There’s just one problem though. My first one has been in Brazil, and I’m worried that nobody could do it better.