Modern football – particularly in Europe – is a structured, sanitised affair, but this World Cup has been anything but predictable.
Even the regulations have been applied in wildly different manners.
In theory, press must arrive at the media centre 90 minutes before kick-off or their seats are given away to those on the waiting list; in most stadia, this has been relaxed to half an hour, but the Maracana – which has the worst congestion I’ve ever seen – tried to strictly enforce the rule for Argentina-Bosnia, leading to panic and chaos. Fortunately a British FIFA official intervened just before kick-off and made room for the tearful Argentine journalists who feared they’d lose their assignments for missing the opener.
There was similar madness at the Arena Corinthians for the opening ceremony and match between Brazil and Croatia. Strangely, Brazil has three different types of electrical socket requiring different plug adaptors, dependent on state. One is the EU version, one the US version and the other a less common local variant. Of course the latter is the ubiquitous version at all the stadia. Imagine the chaos when the whole of the world’s sports media turned up for the opening match, only to find the stadium had run out of those adaptors, that they had no power and – for several hours – no internet, as the wifi system collapsed under the strain. Eventually it came back online, while journos from around the world loaned their rivals adaptors so they could beam images of the bizarre, fractured but hilarious ceremony back to fans at home. Sometimes it takes a mini-crisis to bring out the humanity in the self-absorbed.
That just about sums things up – despite FIFA’s attempts to impose European-style order on the tournament, this is Brazil, and things have to be done on the fly.
Those of us accustomed to slick, faultless organisation reacted in different ways; some lost their tempers, some had mini breakdowns (a group of TV producers were practically in tears as they repeatedly failed to get their video report transmitted on schedule); some (such as myself) just cackled wildly and called in the story by phone, 1970s style.
You see, I’d already had a very different breakdown, having being one of the unlucky 5% to suffer a severely adverse reaction to anti-malarial drugs which we didn’t even have to take, a reaction that involved no sleep for the 72 hours during which I raced from game to game across Brazil, a 72 hours which featured three matches, three flights, a rooster morphing into a screeching, feathered Beelzebub, and – after a rickety red-eye on a 1980s Boing into the heart of the jungle immediately after the opening match – a giant Mario Balotelli strangling me to death in my Manaus hotel room. It wasn’t quite Hunter S Thompson’s ‘goddamn bats’, but it was a bad trip. Technical problems in the Sao Paulo media centre were an amusing diversion from the ongoing hallucinations and fear. (Doctor’s note – despite the UK Home Office website’s claims, you won’t get malaria in Manaus. No-one does, that part of the Amazon is too acidic for the mosquitoes in question. Spend the money on a sunhat).
Meanwhile, the football has been rip-roaringly raucous, reminiscent of a bygone era.
For the most part, it has been a wild carnival of attacking play, 0.6 more goals per game being scored than at the 2010 tournament. The Netherlands’ spanking of defending champions Spain, whose subsequent early exit sent shockwaves around football; Costa Rica’s incredible wins over Uruguay and Italy; any match Australia have been involved in; the USA’s amazing spirit against Ghana; Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney breaking their World Cup hoodoos; the hugely impressive Colombia and Chile, who – as those in the know predicted pre-tournament – are flying the flag for Latin America after doing so well in qualifying. Even the ordinarily depressing England were entertaining enough, even if they are already making plans to go home.
I attended the opening game – marred by Fred’s dive as Brazil beat Croatia – both of England’s matches so far, Argentina’s win over tournament debutants Bosnia, and Chile’s ousting of the Spanish. They have all, ultimately, been hugely entertaining.
It’s been some ride so far, easily superior to the snooze-fest that was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Concerns about the completion of stadia and facilities, a lack of affordable accommodation, the ability to handle crowds of foreign fans travelling around and between unfamiliar cities with no real national train network, the lack of English spoken by staff, and disruption caused by protests and strikes were all partially justified, but in many cases they have not had a negative impact on the experience.
In Rio de Janeiro, for example, the metro system has been specifically adapted to facilitate travel to the stadium, with English speaking assistants helping fans and allowing free travel for those with tickets, and yellow arrows pointing in the direction of Maracana all over the city and metro system. However, once you get there, the handful of narrow entry points from the metro stations – which are further clogged up by those buying or selling tickets and beers – leads to unprecedented congestion, meaning it can take up to an hour to get into the ground.
In Sao Paulo, meanwhile, the state’s intervention has been focused placing armed robocops on every metro train and platform, with little instruction on how to get about. Manaus, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a metro system but a Third World-style bus network; however, taxi drivers have been congregating wherever they can, flocking to Manaus from surrounding towns and communities hours away down the Amazon.
Perhaps we should trust local authorities to get their priorities right – Rio has been a non-stop street party of fans and locals, whereas an armed Brazilian firm attacked England fans in Sao Paulo the other night: therefore, the focus on easing transport and partying in Rio is the correct one; the obsession with policing in Sao Paulo meant the aforementioned Elite Squad quelled that attempted assault in seconds. In Manaus, on the other hand, the largely indigenous population have shown remarkable kindness and hospitality, delighted at their first real experience of tourism outside of backpackers trekking to the jungle. The government has barely needed to lift a finger.
That Sao Paulo incident must have been terrifying for the England fans trapped in a bar under attack; also rather scary was the moment journalists in the Maracana press centre heard Chile fans screaming before a partition wall collapsed on the working area. We soon realised it was a group of ticketless fans attempting to bum-rush the show, but at the time – and in the context of a hugely congested area around the stadium – we feared something far worse.
But it was all right on the night. And between matches – particularly in Rio – it has been one delirious, non-stop party.
Like any major football tournament, the mood of fans is key to its atmosphere and success. At this World Cup, fans – who are ordinarily somewhat compartmentalised into their national groups – have mingled on beaches, streets and open bars.
Due to this World Cup’s location (and the initially great weather, which has cooled somewhat), the dominant forces have been joyous, musical Latin Americans.
And the Chileans have been the real wild card, particularly in Rio.
Legions of colourful, painted fans have been singing “Ole Ole Ole Ole, Chile, Chile” and “Chi Chi Chi, Le Le Le, Viva Chile!” long into the night. Once they realised that Rio’s beautifully painted Selaron’s Steps were in fact the creation of a Chilean artist, they occupied the sprawling staircase leading from the Bohemian Lapa quarter up to the equally majestic hilltop community of Santa Teresa. And everyone is welcome, with teams of Chileans selling unofficial merchandise and flags to whoever wants in.
And it’s not just them – the legion of Argentina fans seem to be making a point of building bridges with their rivals, cracking jokes with the English and buying drinks for locals as they also show their Brazilian neighbours due respect. Colombians have travelled en masse too, excited by their team’s superb form; there are even Venezuelans, Peruvians and Israelis of South American descent getting in on the act, and why not?
The Yanks – whose tourists are dreaded by many – are omnipresent, having purchased more tickets than any visiting nation. But this is a different genre of American to the camera-toting, bellowing tourist with a ‘mug me’ target stapled to the back of his Hawaiian shirt. These are open-minded, internationalist soccer fans, progressively-minded Europhiles who support English, Spanish, German or Italian teams alongside their MLS or College outfits.
Many are of Hispanic descent, allowing them to melt into the mass of Latin American supporters; those who aren’t still show off the basic Spanish taught in US schools. Brazilians do not always speak Spanish but almost always understand the gist. I’ve been getting in on the act too, initially struggling with their version of Portuguese language but finally getting an ear for the drawling, schloischy accent as I muddle through conversations in a fusion of pidgin Castellano and French. It doesn’t always work, but it usually draws a chuckle, and mostly gets me from A to B.
And of course, Rio’s locals have lapped it all up, building makeshift Caipirinha bars and barbeques on street corners and in front yards, with home stereo systems blaring out samba and Brazilian hip-hop long into the night. Sleep is hard to come by, and it is most welcome when it does arrive.
And while there have been a few thefts and muggings, plus the abortive hooligan attack in Sao Paulo, the overwhelming majority of locals are showing incredible hospitality, helping out tourists with directions and advice, looking out for their guests’ belongings and intervening on the occasion a hustler attempts to take advantage of a confused visitor. Meanwhile, single Brazilians are enjoying the added diversity of a global fan invasion, and the interest has been reciprocated, particularly by northern Europeans marvelling at their toned, tanned, boisterous hosts.
I enjoyed a very Brazilian experience, watching their match with Mexico with a group of British and German friends at the Alzirao, a local square for local people, set up for maximum enjoyment of football and samba. We did not spot any other foreigners, but were made to feel completely welcome.
We’re only one week in, but so far it has easily been the best sports tournament I’ve attended, narrowly edging ahead of the London Olympics, which was superbly organised to make things as easy and comfortable as possible for visitors, with the Olympic park a few tube stops from Shoreditch, one of the most popular nightlife areas in Europe. But, as someone who has lived in East London since it was as rough as Adam Lallana’s beard, I was one of those locals helping out our guests: the familiarity of the setting puts London 2012 just behind Brazil in terms of experience.
Rio in particular is an excellent host city for a global party – the 2016 Olympics should be a hoot – and, while it remains to be seen how Brazil will react if they lose, the next three weeks promise to be brilliant, beautiful and very Brazilian.
- Sports & Recreation
- Sao Paulo