I recall a conversation from years, maybe even a decade ago, with two friends, Alex and Lewis. They asked whether I’d rather see Rochdale vs Lincoln, or any other League 2 (Division 3 at the time) stalwart of that era at a dingy lower-league ground, or England in the World Cup. Now, at that time my burning ambitions to go to a World Cup hadn’t quite started smoking, nor did I know that in 2014 it was to be held in Brazil. And I also followed my beloved Rochdale to wherever the fixture list sent them. Obviously I said I’d rather watch ‘Dale, and I meant it.
Thinking about that question now, it never made sense, as these two scenarios would never arise, the World Cup occurring in the summer while regular club footy has pre-season. Maybe they meant that if someone dangled two tickets in front of me and told me take any for free, would I take the one at the legendary Maracana in Rio or prefer to be penned away in a corner of Sincil Bank amongst 200 other diehards?
Unfortunately, I can’t answer the question with complete conviction. I’d say for the team, Rochdale, and the location, a World Cup stadium. If only League 2 games were hosted now and again at cauldrons of football such as the San Siro, Azteca and Bernabeu. If only.
As I mentioned, the World Cup is a summer event, and I’d acquired tickets for Costa Rica vs England, the final group game in Belo Horizonte, which I’d hoped would have something riding on it. People had told me that it would be a dead-rubber, while others insisted England had the advantage of playing Costa Rica after Uruguay and Italy had done, thus they would know how many goals to beat the Central American minnows by. As you all know, England were eliminated after two defeats and Costa Rica had qualified going into the game knowing that barring a substantial goal difference swing across the Uruguay vs Italy clash and this one, they would top the group.
I took the same 7-hour bus to Belo Horizonte, this time without any stress (unlike the previous game) and arrived alone, yes, on my bill, at the terminal at about 6am. I was going to go the game with an English friend, but given England had been knocked out, he sold his ticket back to FIFA, and here I was needing to burn a few hours in solitude before kick-off.
That considered, I decided to nap in the terminal before doing anything else, and planted myself on one of a great number of plastic chairs (far more abundant that in most South American bus terminals). I managed about an hour of dozing, doing that thing where your head jerks and flops all over the place every few minutes, until a tap on the shoulder rudely awakened me. Still in dream mode, I wondered if I had bumped into someone from a past life (I’d already seen former uni mates and buddies from Argentina back in 2009 by chance), but I was to be disappointed.
Knowing what I know about Latin American ethnicity, even in my sleepy daze I immediately clocked this guy as either Bolivian or Peruvian, and immediately knew that he was gonna ask for money. Now, I must admit that I prefer the traditional beggar who just gets to the point by shouting “hungry” or sticking his hand out at me. Those who pull out the tragic elaborate story just get on my nerves. Not capable of telling him to go away, or even say “How the f*** do you expect me to give you money when you’ve just woken me up?” I let him drone on for about a minute, staring through him rather than at him. Not paying any real attention, I gathered that he wanted money towards a bus to Cochabamba, Bolivia, which he had written on a piece of paper, as if to certify its existence to his victims. What the hell he was doing miles away in Belo Horizonte, I don’t know, but then again he was just finding a way to make money. He’d have been better off saying he was going to Sao Paulo, or with me, just saying “Give me money for food/water/drugs”. Anyway, he caught me on a good day and I gave him a coin which seemed to delight him.
This appeared to be a sign for me to get out of the bus station. There were a few England fans dotted around, but more Costa Ricans, and I considered trying to tag along with some unknowns for the day, but even after identifying what I figured to be lone rangers such as myself, I decided against it, and set off on my own. I wandered out in search of an early breakfast. I went to the same cheap place as I had 10 days previous and ate the same pasty, cake, coffee and fruit juice. Wildly exciting.
As it was still only about 8am, I wanted to hunt down some beers, but supermarkets didn’t open till an hour later. So, instead, after a good spout of walking around in circles I eventually found the big marketplace. Romantic ideas of buying red and white fabrics, scissors and staples and putting together an England flag to represent my Inter Malager Dale mates back home had crossed my mind, but laziness got the better of me, and I instead decided to get some pre-match beers. Until this point, I hadn’t felt as if anyone had ripped me off in Brazil, as everyone had warned against, mostly due to me knowing how much things should cost and being able to speak Portuguese.
But there’s always a first time. I spotted a place to buy beers, a kind of mini-bar combined with a shop and so asked for 4 cans of beer. A boggle-eyed woman wanted 20 Reais for them, an exorbitant price, so I asked her how much per can. She said 5 each, to which I said they were expensive, as in such places they would only cost about 3, and I added that one could buy cheaper beers on Copacabana beach on matchdays. “It’s the World Cup,” she said, shrugging her hunchbacked shoulders. I scowled at her a little while, and then she said she’d sell them to me for 4 each. “Deal,” I said, but I only bought 2. If you don’t demand discounts, you don’t get. All you people aspiring to visit Latin America, never pay the initial price, as bargaining is the way.
The above-mentioned immensely tragic ordeals endured, a few supermarket beers and burned hours later, I got to the stadium without nothing much more of note to mention, except that the England shirted middle-aged and moustachioed men on the bus appeared to be Guatemalan and Mexican. Well done boys, support the teams in the stadium, not your own! (This will explain what I mean).
This time the bus left us a much longer distance from the stadium and as the sun was rather beastly I removed my T-shirts that I had worn to combat the night cold of the bus, and revealed my yellow Brian Barry-Murphy Dale away shirt. Club over country I say, but I still felt a little awkward as the great majority of fans up by the stadium were sporting England shirts.
I got to the last point at which one could drink alcohol before walking to the stadium, and despite feeling a little lonely for a while (you could argue I was being anti-social), my football shirt did the trick and I got chatting to a Huddersfield fan definitely from Yorkshire, and a Southern-sounding Liverpool supporter. We discussed England’s abject failure, talked about lower-league battles that the Dale had had with the Terriers, and I learned that the pair were veterans of either 3 or 4 previous World Cups.
In no time, it was time to get to our seats, and as we were in different parts of the ground, the other fellows and I parted our ways. Being a second-time visitor to the Mineirao, I didn’t go crazy taking photos and nothing had really changed since my first trip 10 days before, other than that this time, FIFA had sorted themselves out and all food listed on menus was now available.
I sat in my seat and began chatting to a Peruvian pensioner about football in general. Amongst other things, he nattered on about Peruvian club teams and I tried to participate on this topic, but became undone when I kept confusing Ecuadorian, Bolivian and Peruvian clubs. Is that really a sin? They’re all from the Andes region. But then how would an England supporter react if it was suggested that Man City, Partick Thistle and Total Network Solutions all battled it out in the same domestic league? This interchange of footballing knowledge was then suddenly interrupted by a Brazilian man looking at me quite angrily and saying I was in his seat. It turned out I was in row E instead of row F, so my chat with Alberto was sadly curtailed and I went off to my seat for the final half an hour before kickoff.
Contemplating the spectacle itself, I couldn’t but feel demotivated. The game meant nothing and given it was my first England match, it felt like a little bit of a letdown. I won’t lie and say I’m a massive Three Lions supporter, but had the game been competitive, then the two Colombia matches I saw at the World Cup games might not completely override any memories I had of this game.
Now, Yorkshire is a big county, and my pre-match calculations told me that I’d have about a 99.7% chance of being seated next to a Yarkshireman, and unsurprisingly that was the case. Please picture what this man looks like, how old he is, where exactly in Yorkshire he’s from, and what halftime refreshments he had in his packed lunch, and I’ll tell you if you’re stereotyping is correct in the next paragraph.
The answers are bald, bearded and chubby, mid-forties, Bradford rather than Barnsley, and pork pies. How the hell he got the latter in Brazil, I have no clue. But he was a good bloke. He spoke of how he’d been banned from international tournaments for reasons I didn’t fully understand, but I assume they involve forms of hooliganism, and then of how he’d followed (stalked) the England team and stayed in the same hotel as them for each of the games. He proudly showed me a photo of himself and Ben Foster in the elevator.
Onto the match and England had made a host of changes, as promised, and the team on the pitch was rather useful. I could see why Costa Rica had done well, as their slick passing and clever movement caused moments of nervousness throughout, but to be fair, England looked useful and tried to get the ball down and play too. Lallana, Barkley, Wilshere and Sturridge put together some neat passages of play with plenty of attacking intent, so the future isn’t so dark. But it will be a lot lighter if Phil Jones is barred from playing. Good in the air, yes, but passing the ball out of play when five yards from a teammate on repeated occasions made me think how every single little boy who plays football can be a professional. Instead of being a footballer, he should be a gurner (watch this video), and I’d totally back him.
Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard came on, so I can say I saw the Liverpool captain in his last England appearance, but neither of them impressed me, and they just went through the motions. The game ended and surprisingly, the team were raucously applauded off at the other end of the ground, whilst the Costa Ricans chanted “Ticos” to their heroes, who had topped the group and would go on to play Greece in the following round.
Post-match, I pretty much followed the same routine as at the Colombia vs Greece game. I slept under the trees near the lake, dined at in the same dim restaurant whilst watching the following set of games, and then trundled into the bus station, where I slept again, before boarding the bus and heading back to Rio.
So, in retrospect, not the best way to debut at an England game, and despite not surpassing many League 2 games in terms of excitement or drama, I’d seen one. And the initial question of whether I’d rather see Dale in the lower league echelons or England at a World Cup was now irrelevant, as I’d proudly done both.