So after the stress of nearly missing the bus 7 hours previously (see the prelude to this post), we arrived in Belo Horizonte at about 5.30am. Just 7 hours to burn before kick off. The bus station was justifiably rammed with Colombians, as the game I was going to watch was them against Greece. We left the terminal and were met with a cool breeze and probably not the most aesthetically-pleasing part of the city.
A few non-football things before getting on our way to the Mineirão. We got a pastry, cake, coffee and juice for just 4.50 Reais, less than half the price one would pay in Rio. So not all of Brazil was expensive. And then the menagerie of screaming birds, dogs, cats, basically any breed you can think of, in the local market. I imagined that hell might be like that place, the only difference being the incessant screeches and strong odour of shit clouded in darkness.
On our way to the stadium, via local bus rather than taxi (always go local!), whilst drinking our Heineken beers, Leandro, a graffiti artist (check his work out here), identified some really good spots where he could do a mural post-game. He’d brought his paint cans in order to leave his mark in Minas Gerais, the state which Belo Horizonte is capital of, yet decided not to leave his equipment in the luggage storage at the bus station. We figured he could leave them somewhere at the stadium. In hindsight a mistake.
The bus had to stop at the bottom of the hill leading up to stadium as an area around the Mineirão had been cordoned off. I don’t know what it is about me, but police and security seem to like stopping me wherever in the world I am. For those who know me, see Charlton or Carlisle. Perhaps on this day it was because I was wearing a red and black Cucuta Deportivo shirt, and not the Colombian national one. I was asked to show them the contents of my small manbag and they found nothing incriminating, just beers, some Colombian liquor for laters, other T-shirts and batteries. No problem.
But at the same time they had stopped Leandro and asked him to empty his rucksack. Here comes trouble. They spotted his paint cans and asked him what he planned to do with them, to which he responded he was going to do a painting somewhere. Now, graffiti isn’t illegal in Brazil, so that wasn’t the issue. The problem was that you can’t take spray cans into the stadium for security reasons. A bit of a howler on his part, to be honest. And then came the best part. He had quite a long knife in one of his side pockets, which he had left there accidentally from some other work he’d done the previous week.
The attitude of the policemen darkened a little at this point and they called a rather aggressive senior over, who was keen to show his authority. Shouting rather a lot, he demanded an explanation from Leandro and proceeded to take his details off him. He asked if he had been in prison, and understandably wanted to know why he had a knife with him as he was approaching the stadium. Every time Leandro dared to respond to him, he kinda just barked at him as if he was challenging him. Not looking too good from a neutral perspective.
By this time they had realised that we were together, so my bag was checked again and they asked for my passport. The flurry of stamps told them I was a frequent traveler, but in their minds did that make me an international drugs merchant, or just someone who liked traveling? The latter it seemed, or at least I hoped, and I explained to them that I had come from Colombia (not a good ring to it when you’re confronted with a herd of angry police officers) and had invited Leandro to the match with me.
By hook or by crook, they let Leandro off with it and just confiscated his knife and painting materials. Maybe my calm presence helped. Who knows. We apologised to the police and they wished us a good game. So here goes the football part.
I was amazed at the numbers of Colombians that had travelled, and as far as I could see, it was just them and a handful of Brazilians making their way towards to the stadium. I will ashamedly admit that four small cans of beer had got me bloated and a little tipsy by this point, but they had put us in the mood for a good afternoon of banter. It was only about 11am, so we had a bit of time to burn.
We bumped into a group of Colombians from Medellin, where I used to live, and we had a good chat, me obviously pretending to be Brazilian. I can’t help but lie from where I’m from sometimes, it makes things interesting and on occasion, dangerous. I had brought a small bottle of aguardiente, the alcoholic aniseed drink fervently consumed in Colombia and roughly translating as fire water. Yet after just a couple of swigs, and a few more from the bottle the Colombians were passing around, I gave in, and handed the remainder of mine over to the steel-stomached fans as I didn’t want voms to ruin the day.
Leandro and I got on our way and went beyond the “no alcohol after here” point, having to show our tickets to get through the barriers. There were ticket touters loitering, speaking with mild French accents, and I was tempted to send the police after them such is my dislike towards these kinds(Here, I vent my fury). I told Leandro to take a photo of me with a rather attractive policewoman with bright pink lipstick, something which served as a catalyst for many banterous photos which would follow.
Approaching the stadium, the “I’m at the World Cup, really!” feeling began to sink in more and getting inside was a rather smooth process, the only discomfort being the burning midday sun attacking us. I’ve since heard some people say that the Mineirão stadium looked ruinous from the outside, but I disagree. It’s a kind of bowl shape that almost has a feel of a Roman Coliseum to it, but in a good way (hence people’s ruins comments), and my stats bank can inform you that it is a protected heritage site and the oldest in-use football stadium in Brazil.
We had arrived at the stadium a good hour before kick-off, so we had a good explore, cue more silly photos, before taking our seats. I must admit to being impressed by how smart the stadium was inside. Very clean, lots of people available to help and not the building sites tabloid newspapers like to convince us they are. One fault was that despite a vast menu including cheeseburgers, hotdogs and other fast foods, the only stuff actually on sale were popcorn and a rice and bean dish. Lack of food variety, yes, but I was there for the football. Didn’t really care!
Once in our seats we took some photos and hunted down a yellow-wigged representation of Carlos Valderrama, el pibe, a Colombian footballing legend from the 1990s famous for his bonnet, and weren’t bothered that he was French. Watching the teams come out for the warm-ups indicated how close I was to getting a World Cup game off my tick-list, and fast-forward twenty minutes and we were at the national anthems.
I had learned the Colombian one, so joined in, and I was mightily impressed by the sheer volume of noise generated by the crowd, which must have been 95% yellow, mostly Colombian, with a tinkling of Brazil shirts. Supposedly there were 40,000 Colombians there, and the attendance was just short of 60,000. Remember that Colombia hadn’t been to a World Cup since 1998.To a man the Colombian eleven sang, as shown on the big screen, and every countryman in the stadium stood hand on heart, many in tears, to bellow out the anthem. I get goosebumps just recalling those few minutes as they belted out an acapella of the chorus. Think Brazil at the final of the Confederations Cup at the Maracana and you’ll have an idea. Pure passion.
To the game itself and I was very impressed with the Colombian performance, especially with their desire to get the ball down and play attacking passing football. I refuted Leandro’s claims that the game was technically poor, the Greeks anti-football was horrendous, yes, but the Colombians played with a flair reminiscent of the Brazil side of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The standout performer for me was Juan Cuadrado, later media reports suggesting that he was unknown to the average incubated Premier League supporter. Every time he got the ball he wanted to beat his man, dropping a shoulder this way and that, the flurry of step-overs had shades of Ronaldinho in them. I had preached to all Colombians before the World Cup that Mario Yepes, the 38-year-old centre back and captain, was the weak link in the team, but he marshaled the defence superbly, dispelling my arguments that his pace would let him down.
The match ended 3-0, Armero’s deflected early goal sparking the famous celebratory dance routine. See how they danced back home in Bogota after the World Cup (Colombian team welcomed in Bogota)) if you want to see how impressive their dance moves are. For those who don’t know, Colombia is a hub of Latin music and Cali, the city on the west coast, the capital of salsa. Teófilo bagged a second from a corner, before Colombia were almost punished for a little bit of overplay when Greek hit the bar in a rare spell of possession. James added a third after a great team move involving a few flicks and back-heels that finally came off to round off an exciting game and to show that the Colombian team was more than just the talismanic Falcao.
So the 90 minutes that footballistically were what I’d been waiting years for were over and it was back to reality. The experience hadn’t sunk in, as things rarely do with me, but the mini hangover was certainly beginning to take its toll. Amidst traffic jams and floods of people, Leandro got his geography wrong and we walked the wrong way towards the airport in the searing sunshine. Not such a bad decision in the end, as we came across a spectacular lake, went to a bank of grass under some trees and crashed out for about an hour.
We then took a bus back to the centre and wandered around for a while trying to find somewhere to eat something other than pastries, and came across a dingy small restaurant and had a plate of rice, beans, salad and in my case, sausage. The meal was accompanied by Guaraná, a soft drink, rather than beers, as we were totally knackered. We watched the England vs Italy game and I was a little underwhelmed. A non-footballing incident to note was having to take a number two with Superman fists stopping the door from swinging open, and thankfully resisting concerted efforts of an old fellow trying to barge in, who didn’t get that someone shouting ocupado and holding the door shut wasn’t a sign to continue pushing it open. I think he got an eyeful of me at my most vulnerable, but that’s for him to take home.
After a traipse around the bus station to burn time, and a chance encounter that would later get me onto television briefly (here) we got back on the bus to Rio.
The day was great I must admit, but often I believe that the wait and anticipation are where you really feel the excitement. As the game came upon me, I just went through the motions as if I was at Dale vs Shrewsbury on the archetypal wet Tuesday night, and post-match, I was left with a mere sense of completion. But it’s not something I’ll erase from the memory too easily.