They say Brazil is the home of football, the perfect place to host a World Cup.
Clichés about samba, attractive and well-proportioned Brazilian girls and impoverished kids playing football in the streets abound every time the media refer to Brazil, so I’ll try to stay away from that here.
What I saw was a blur of people from all participating countries, as well as those crashing the party. Peruvians, Guatemalans and Scots were just a few anomalous shirts riding the wave of the World Cup. Mostly men, clearly, but the odd couple, family and in extreme case, packs of young European women roaming alone.
All united not just by football, but by the spectacle of the World Cup, by wanting to be in a place where one had to be.
This was at least the mood during the group phase, when all fans dream of their countries progressing. How far depends on who you’re supporting.
At the Brazil vs Croatia game, I got on the international bandwagon, via several cans of quickly-downed beer, and excitedly shouted at people; what I said depended on the badge on their shirt, all in good spirit of course. At this stage, more than later on, everyone was wearing their country’s shirt, or even their club one, to show who they were, and perhaps to make interaction with foreign creatures a touch easier. A day previous I had proudly worn my sports-store-closing-down-sale-bought Croatia strip, and barked “Hrvatska” at every Brazilian who warned me of the beating my supposed birth country was going to take. Entertainment turned to embarrassment when some real Croatians started talking to me in their mother tongue. And I got some dirty looks from what I think were Bosnians.
So, walking down Copacabana beach, not mentioning the pretty female forms crossing our paths incessantly, we made our way towards the Fifa Fan Fest, the nemesis of the anti-establishment and epitome of how football has become business-orientated. On the subject of FIFA and their evilness, I prefer to affirm that football is why I am at the World Cup, and anti-Capitalist dissenters weren’t about to allow politics to overshadow my experience. All whispers were of said Fan Fest, a cauldron of verde amarelo where the best atmosphere was to be had. So we headed that way.
En-route I was interviewed by Mexican TV, exchanged a shot of cachaça for a photo with a fake World Cup, hugged Argentines, and talked to pretty much anyone who crossed my path. After hurrying more warm beers down me, we got in the 10-wide queue for the Fan Fest and sloshed our way towards the temporary structure.
Things to note from our experience in the queue was the confiscation of our bottle of cachaça (I warned the Mexican girl who was with us that the police weren’t stupid and were trained for a lot more than spotting glass bottles of alcohol), and me finding a pair of flip flops, a left and a right, of identical colour and size, one an official Havaiana, the other a cheap piece of rubber. Those who know me will know that I have amazing luck with flip flops. It seems that whenever I need a new pair, another just appears. On that same day, mine had snapped, so I could now happily remove my trainers and replace them with more appropriate footwear.
Once in the Fifa-licensed zone, via an X-Ray machine and a feeling-up, it felt rather commercial. Hyundai, Sony and Brahma had evidently paid well to have their names splattered across temporary structures and towers. We took some obligatory photos with the big “MEXICO” letters and made our way into the masses. This would be the last Brazil game where anyone had an ounce of space in which to move in in the Fan Fest. Cariocas are slow starters.
The game itself. We all know what happened. Comical own goal, great solo effort, dodgy penalty and something of a scrappy victory for Brazil. “We’re warming up, we’ll hit form when it matters,” they said. My Brazilian friends were insistent that it was a penalty. They always think they’re right. I kinda just laughed to show what I thought, and yet even the most biased Brazilian media the following day knew they had been fortuitous. Sheepish might be the appropriate word to explain how they analysed Fred’s tumble.
Game over and it was party time. Live music and hordes of happy people. After a power-nap on the sand, some new German friends brought over more beers and my feet became eager to move in time with the samba and forró beats which I suddenly discovered how to dance to. After dancing frolics and a chat with some Colombians about how I’d be watching their team two days later in Belo Horizonte, we headed away to eat and get more beers from the supermarket.
Fast-forward the boring eating part and we were on the beach where some people had gathered to have a kick-around on the beach. Basically, Copacabana beach is lined with free-to-use public football pitches, the majority kitted out with goal posts and netting. You just turn up with a ball and play. If you don’t have a ball, you just kind of hover around where some people do, get a few kicks and then join in. A game developed after a while in which I realised I didn’t quite have football-fitness. Aside from a few dashes into defence for those last-man sliding tackles which I never can resist, I was a goal-hanger, drunkenly believing that I was Zidane-esque. On a few occasions I was. I chested down a deep cross and thundered it into the net on the volley via the crossbar to sweet applause and also did two successive Maradona twirls to evade the lunges of some sweaty bearded fellows from I don’t know where. That was the way I saw it anyway.
Special shout out for a short blonde girl from London who claimed not to know how to play football. One of the best beach football defenders I’ve ever seen, never stopped running and munched guys twice the size of her in such a way that I was almost brought to joyous nostalgic tears of my own footballing past.
That small game brings me back to what I was talking about in the beginning of this post. At the root of the World Cup, whatever anybody’s criticisms are, is football, and I romantically believe that football will always prosper. It brings people together; in that kick-around I didn’t converse with anyone or ask permission to play. Nobody complained about fouls and nobody was in charge. We were just sharing in the spirit of football.
I unfortunately never got round to playing football again during the World Cup, but there’d be lots more talking points.