The Brazil Chronicles: The Finale

Copacabana beach from atop Sugarloaf Mountain.

Copacabana beach from atop Sugarloaf Mountain.

Read parts I, II, and III

Our whirlwind trip continued as we exited the flight from Natal shortly after sunrise, a taxi trip in morning traffic offering us a glimpse into the vast expanse of Rio de Janeiro as we made our way to our hotel nestled between the confluence of the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

There was no time for rest as we dropped our bags at the front desk and walked the block to the oceanfront boardwalk, then strolled down to enjoy brunch as beach soccer and beach volleyball games entertained us.

Further up we came to the FIFA Fan Fest in Copacabana where thousands gathered to watch a cracking match between the Netherlands and Australia, then hurried back to our hotel to check in and catch the subway to see the last of our ticketed contests, Spain versus Chile in the world renowned Maracana.

This has to be the place. Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

This has to be the place. Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

While our concierge’s idea of transit time left something to be desired, we managed to avoid the chaos of Chilean supporters crashing through the media entrance and circumnavigated the stadium to find our seats prior to kickoff.

We found some gentleman holding our seats for us, and after some even gentler prodding they made way as we settled in just in time to see Chile make things worse for the defending World Cup champions with a superb team goal finished off by Eduardo Vargas.

Chile were dominant on the pitch and in the stands.

Chile were dominant on the pitch and in the stands.

The 75,000 plus capacity arena was awash in a sea of red, both countries fans bearing the same primary color red but to the neutral the majority of support was clearly in the South American side’s favor.

That fanatical fervor doubled just before the break when Chile capitalized on a poor free kick clearance by Iker Casillas, Charles Aranguiz pouncing on the loose ball with a delightful one touch toe punch finish to put Spain into deeper misery to compound their capitulation to Holland days earlier.

The dismissal of Spain was a surprise, but the class on the field came from a Chilean team that would later unfairly fall to hosts Brazil in the Round of Sixteen following a penalty shootout.

Perhaps one day.

Perhaps one day.

Field of Dreams.

Field of Dreams.

Before that came to pass, however, we enjoyed an ebullient evening with celebrating Chilenos eager to share their elation. Standing in the grand environs of the stadium long after the final whistle, we eventually made our way back home on a packed subway, meeting new friends along the way.

BrenaldoYDamininhoMaracana

A couple of twenty-something Chilean guys made these two intrepid travelers envious, their tales of road tripping across South America to attend the Copa Mundial harkening back to our younger days of driving from Portland to Panama.

We finished our night watching Croatia crush Cameroon 4-nil from a bar near our hotel, and after a day that began before dawn we retired to our room.

This way to the media center!

This way to the media center!

The next day was a rarity as rain and an overcast sky put a damper on any plans to lounge in the sun, so instead we sought out some sightseeing that led us to the media center at Forte do Copacabana, which turned out was only three blocks from our temporary home.

The media centers were always a welcome respite from the craziness and unpredictability of Brazilian life, not to mention the best wireless internet access. After a bit of hobnobbing with other journalists we pushed on and resumed our primary aim of watching football.

Reporting is hard.

Reporting is hard.

Think we can get in there?

Think we can get in there?

Impressed by the chipping skills of James Rodriguez in Colombia’s defeat of the Ivory Coast, the match of the day for us was Uruguay and England. On the advice of a friend living in Rio we made our way to the Mud Bug pub, a well known locale for viewing matches and apparently also for beautiful Brazilian and Colombian bartenders.

Missing out on seeing Luis Suarez as he sat out in the loss to Costa Rica we attended in Fortaleza, the now former Liverpool striker was electric as he punished the country of his one time employment with two scintillating goals either side of a fantastic finish from his old strike partner Daniel Sturridge.

The Three Lions bowed out as early as Spain, and remarkably Uruguay would go on to take down Italy as well, but not before Suarez ensconced his place in infamy with the bite seen round the world on the understandably apopleptic Giorgio Chiellini.

While the indelible image of fans posing with Suarez’s open-mouthed advertisement in Copacabana prompted adidas to take it down, we prefer to think of a simpler time when the Uruguayan was better known for his scoring panache than his odd predilection for human flesh.

We discussed the finer points of the sport with aficionados from numerous nations while we watched the night’s slate of matches, making new friends from Uruguay, Mexico, and Brazil in particular. Being our last night before flying home, we did our best to savor the moment and let the amazing experiences in this beautiful country sink in before crashing hard.

The Dude is a notorious photo bomber.

The Dude is a notorious photo bomber.

Waking up early the next morning we set out directly to Corcovado to see the Christ the Redeemer statue, the symbol of Rio and Brazil more than simply a Catholic icon as the mountaintop setting over two thousand feet above sea level is a view unlike any other in the world.

Rio from atop Corcovado.

Rio from atop Corcovado.

The proximity of the mountain is mere miles from the ocean, so to go from the beach to the clouds is a dizzying trip that induces vertigo when you look down the sheer cliff from the edge of the viewing platform.

Even for those with a fear of heights the trek is well worth the psychological discomfort, the reward unobstructed 360 degree vistas that include the Maracana, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and Sugarloaf Mountain.

T is for Timbers.

T is for Timbers.

Green is the color.

Green is the color.

After snapping the gratuitous Jesus Christ pose pictures, we headed for the next major landmark in Sugarloaf to take the cable car to the top of the seaside peak.

For these two boys from Oregon that grew up with the Goonies and the dominant image of Cannon Beach’s 235 foot Haystack Rock, while Sugarloaf was smaller than Corcovado at roughly 1,300 feet the height and views impressed in equal measure.

Stunning scenes from Sugarloaf.

Stunning scenes from Sugarloaf.

There are two cable cars that take you up to the top, the midway point of Morro da Urca putting you squarely inside a national park complete with helicopter trips and native monkeys like marmosets roaming free.

Marmoset mealtime.

Marmoset mealtime.

The views from the cable cars on both legs are majestic, and once you reach the summit of Pao de Acucar you can hike around the circumference on paved trails that provide unparalleled scenes of the tropical paradise that is Rio de Janeiro.

The scope and scale of both these viewpoints is hard to fathom, but seeing helicopters flying beneath you offers some perspective.

To offer more evidence of Rio’s credentials as one of the most visually captivating cities in the world, at least once in your life watch the arcing flight path of jets passing under El Cristo Redentor and then below and past Sugarloaf into Rio’s domestic airport on Guanabara Bay, truly a sight to behold.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro.

It was on that high of highs that we made our way halfway back down to lunch while watching the Ticos upset Italy and book Costa Rica’s passage out of the group stage. Always aiming to time our travel in between matches, we returned to our hotel to see France seal their own advancement with a 5-2 thrashing of the Swiss.

Even when I stepped out for some last minute shopping I could not miss a goal, every shop window and restaurant tuned into the World Cup allowing me to partake in the match while moving about town.

As that match ended so did our final moments in Brazil, and we sadly stepped into a cab waiting to take us to our flight. We caught the remainder of Ecuador’s win over Honduras before boarding the airport bus to our plane, and with that our adventure came to an end after one last delay to top off the fuel tanks.

After nearly a fortnight of crazy travel, little sleep, and incredibly good times, departure was bittersweet, but we’d do it again in a heartbeat given the opportunity.

Obrigado, Brazil!

Obrigado, Brazil!

After settling in back home to watch the rest of the tournament and ultimately see Brazil’s national team, the Selecao, fall so unfortunately from grace in a crushing semifinal defeat to eventual World Cup winners Germany, a twinge of pain is felt for a country that lives and breathes futebol.

For all the flaws exposed by protests and unfinished sections of stadiums, going to Brazil for the World Cup was a dream come true and Brazilians deserve immense credit for serving as excellent hosts and gracious caretakers of all the traveling fans.

Witnessing first hand the USA’s win over Ghana will always stand out as a highlight, but even more memorable is the warm acceptance of Americans by not only Brazilians but other nationalities as fellow brothers and sisters of the world’s game.

The United States may not be world beaters yet, but the intangible of belief means expectations continue to rise for a country that is now considered a regular in the latter rounds of the World Cup.

Personally I hope it’s only a matter of time before America achieves greater success at the international level, and that someday I can return to Brazil to reminisce while making new memories.

Posted in Brenaldo | Leave a comment

The Brazil Chronicles: Part III

What do you get when you cross Cascadia and Brazil? Fun!

What do you get when you cross Cascadia and Brazil? Fun!

Read parts I, II, and the Finale

A lot can be said for a good night’s sleep, but not in this missive.

After a late night celebrating a monumental (and ultimately pivotal) victory for the United States, the next day was a blessedly sunny one with noticeably less Ghana clad supporters strolling along the beach boardwalk.

Presumably the uptick in new Brazilian jersey sightings was a sign of camouflage for the vanquished opponents of the Americans, and our countrymen were in a jubilant spirit as the festivities picked up where they left off the evening before.

A reunion with Dale was on the cards, as well as plans to meet up with my editor at soccerly, the illustrious Scotsman Steve Clare. Before those meetups could occur, a date with the Mother Ocean was on the cards.

For the equivalent of $15 a surfboard missing a fin was ours for an hour, and the pristine appearance of the perfectly undulating shore break did not disappoint. Four to six foot waves peeled along the beach, with easy drop-ins ending in rides providing a stoke to match the grins from the win the night before.

It was in that ebullient mood that Damin and I reconvened at the bar with Dale and friends, a slate of afternoon matches lined up with Brazil versus Mexico the match of the day as the festival of football continued in earnest.

The finest in American Outlaws beach cantina attire.

The finest in American Outlaws beach cantina attire.

While Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa stole the show with Gandalf-esque saves to prevent passage to would be Brazilian goals in a nil-nil draw, the most daunting challenge for us was how long we could stay on our feet (or in our chairs) before passing out to catch an early flight to Rio the next morning.

The arrival of Mr. Clare revived our flagging stamina, and apparently all that was needed was another round (or ten) to motivate us to resume our roles as man on the street reporters.

Steve, as is his wont, was accompanied by a bevy of Brazilian and American women, something his media pass must obviously have procured for him (in reality, local friend Isa and Cascadian friend Audrey did their best to keep the Scot from getting into too much trouble).

As the banter at the bar broke up we aimed for our hotel and were ever so close to achieving our goal at the strike of midnight, but then a game of beach soccer lured me in and encouraged Damin and Dale to buy more beers to enjoy the show.

Given that one of the participants was carrying a beer bottle, the odds of finding a contest better aligned with my skill and fitness levels at that given time were not going to improve.

While beach matches are seemingly ever present in Brazil, this one stood out for the transvestite DJ with a rolling stereo cart providing musical accompaniment to the match, not to mention the unorthodox 15-1-3-1 formation employed by both sides.

A game predominant in the attack was right up my alley, and with my first touch a nutmeg on a rare defender I was immediately accepted into the fold of Brazilians, Americans, Ghanaians, Japanese, Germans, Greeks, Mexicans, and a myriad of other nationalities enjoying a kickabout.

The Brazilians young and old were not surprisingly the most skilled and naturally gifted, but the inventiveness of the visitors was equally impressive, particularly considering the amount of alcohol consumption fueling the imaginative play.

At one point I surely did something entertaining or amusing to my compatriots as chants of ‘Brenaldo’ started to drift down to the playing area, bewildered looks from the other bystanders surely a sign that my reputation of possessing a proclivity for backheels had not preceded my arrival in country.

After an hour so the footy fun was eventually dashed when a sandy puddle caught my toe and firmly planted me into the shallow surf, and the realization that our departure to our ultimate destination was mere hours away finally dawned on us as we called it a night.

As we’d grown accustomed to by this point our slumber did not last nearly long enough, and the call from our cab driver roused us to action before sunrise as we again navigated the city streets in the early morning hours to depart.

The flight to Rio allowed for some much needed rest, and thankfully this time the pilot managed not to break any safety windows en route to the final stop on our travels.

Read parts I, II, and the Finale

Posted in Brenaldo | Leave a comment

The Brazil Chronicles: Part II

Brazilians for America!

Brazilians for America!

Read parts I, III, and the Finale

Well, that wake-up call came quickly.

Away day legends.

Away day legends.

A 5 AM bus ride to Natal first requires transport to the Fortaleza bus station across town, and fortunately for us a rare English speaking cab driver was on hand to get us there safely.

Our cabbie lived in New York City for six years in his early twenties, and knew all too well the different rules of the road in Brazil, in particular that you don’t stop at stop signs or street lights in the middle of the night. Instead you roll through them only slightly slowing down to make sure no one else is speeding through the intersection, or better yet to avoid potential carjackers. No big deal.

Making it on the bus in one piece we settled in for what was meant to be a three, er, seven hour tour to cover the roughly 300 mile journey, and outside of a few minor pit stops was mostly uneventful. Mostly.

When we rolled into Natal proper just after midday, we remarked at how even several miles inland the foundation of this city built on massive sand dunes did not exactly appear stable. Not helping matters, a few days prior the place was drenched with nine inches of rain in less than 24 hours, more than it typically gets the entire month of June.

The ramifications of the extreme weather conditions were soon in evidence as we neared the Natal bus station, where a flooded neighborhood forced our driver to detour through an alley, where his attempt to cut a corner resulted in a potential pink slip from his employer after the side of the bus scraped a cement wall and blew out the two emergency exit windows, showering safety glass on the passengers across the aisle from us.

Safety glass. It really works.

Safety glass. It really works.

Although this proved a wrong turn, our driver was undeterred in arriving at our final destination and simply reversed the bus for three blocks down the alley, expertly navigating in reverse what he failed to do via forward progress. With a cooling ocean breeze coming in the windows, the final few blocks to the station were not unpleasant, and we arrived without further ado.

No harm, no foul.

No harm, no foul.

A cab to the hotel got us to check-in a mere 10 hours after our departure, and outside of the excitement of exploding glass we were none the worse for wear. The hotel was only a block from the ocean in the Ponta Negra area, a spectacular beach break just steps away.

Ponta Negra has it all.

Ponta Negra has it all.

The hotel lobby proved the best part of this hotel, a reception desk bedecked in a Brazilian flag and miniature log cuts making these two Timberlandians feel oddly at home.

Nice of them to provide the proper decor for our arrival.

Nice of them to provide the proper decor for our arrival.

While the room was not quite as advertised it possessed the basics for survival, and we soon ventured out to catch the afternoon’s matches at one of the local boardwalk cafes, an ideal spot to unwind after a long trek.

As the night wore on it was clear that United States supporters in town for the match were outnumbering Ghanaian fans by approximately 10 to 1, but the disparity didn’t diminish the vocality of the jovially confident Africans. In spite of the previously lopsided results of this rivalry the Americans were not to be intimidated, however, and a feeling of belief was emanating in the streets, on the beach, and in the bars.

That prelude carried over to matchday, where the intensity of anticipation was palpable as attention to the earlier games of the day became ever more difficult as the evening kickoff neared. To ensure our physical preparation was equal to our mental readiness, we donned our most patriotic kit and strode uphill donning the Stars and Stripes with pride.

That ebullience didn’t go unnoticed by the locals, and even a quick stop into a shop turned into an impromptu photo shoot with Brazilians eager to share in our exuberance. The love-in continued when we stepped into our cab and our driver told us that the capital of the USA is not Washington DC but rather Natal.

As a further gesture of support for our cause he pulled over and waved over some of his fellow citizens to get us some beers for the road to keep our spirits up as we wove our way through dense traffic en route to the stadium.

As we’d learned previously, Brazilian taxi conductors are all trained in movie car chase driving courses, and Paolo didn’t disappoint as he took every shortcut through the backroads to deliver us whole and intact directly across the street from the American Outlaws pregame gathering at a pizza joint six or so blocks from the 40,000 seat Arena Das Dunas.

The surrealness of the moment hit me when upon immediate exit from the cab I heard my name called by none other than Jeff McAllister, an old friend and former teammate from my high school days at Central Catholic. Like us he was hoping to meet up with another friend in the midst of a massive sea of Americans, and after we dove in it was mere moments before we were reunited with another old friend in Dale Houdek standing atop a table in the heart of the beautiful chaos.

Old friends, new places, same old shenanigans.

Old friends, new places, same old shenanigans.

One of many from our time at Santa Clara University who were left with the indelible mark of the 1994 World Cup and the Brazilian National Team using Buck Shaw Stadium as a practice facility, something just felt right about being here together to enjoy this moment.

After a few rounds of warmup chants to get the collective juices flowing the march to the stadium began with fervor, and as we approached the stadium gates a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner made the senses tingle.

It should be pointed out that for all the security and checkpoints with metal detectors on display upon entering the stadium it was little more than a facade, a thin veneer of respectability and authority meant to put people at ease that Brazil had everything under control in the massive undertaking of hosting a World Cup.

When we were directed through a metal detector and watched it light up red due to the phones in our pockets, the fact that no one gave us a second glance affirmed our suspicions that most of the security was an illusion, a show meant to put people at ease. Fortunately for us this wasn’t our first adventure in Latin America, so rather than feel concerned we were actually getting more comfortable knowing the true lay of the land.

As we passed through the turnstiles we loaded up on liquid refreshments and made our way to our seats nine rows up straddling the midfield line, soaking in the view from seats close enough for USMNT manager Juergen Klinsmann to call us onto the pitch if required.

We're ready, Juergen, just say the words.

We’re ready, Juergen, just say the words.

Our prematch predictions of a predominantly pro-USA crowd proved spot on, a lone corner of energetic Ghanaians doing their best to outsing a stadium primarily clad in American colors. It took a mere thirty seconds for US captain Clint Dempsey to send us and our compatriots into dreamland as he skipped past a defender and lashed the ball into the far post side netting to open the scoring.

The elation of the electric start soon turned to an unhealthy spike in heart rate and nerves as Ghana took control of the proceedings, dominating possession and putting American netminder Tim Howard under constant pressure, with Kyle Beckerman impressing as a relief valve cutting out attack after attack to preserve a precarious lead.

When first Jozy Altidore went down and out with a hamstring strain and Dempsey looked KO’d after a high knee broke his nose just before halftime, things only got worse when centerback Matt Besler had to leave due to injury and the untested John Brooks entered the fray for the second half.

Ghana’s pressure increased and the view from the edge of a cliff holding onto a one goal lead eventually turned into us tumbling over the precipice when the Black Stars equalized off an Andre Ayew blast, courtesy of a brilliant backheel from skipper Asamoah Gyan in the 82nd minute.

All the hopefulness of exacting revenge on Ghana for two previous World Cup exits was now in dire straits, but then Brooks delivered a header goal that will go down in history, nodding home fellow substitute Graham Zusi’s corner kick in the 86th minute to provide the US with a vital win in the Group of Death.

When the final whistle blew the feeling that Brooks had just reached over the edge to offer us a hand to pull us back from the abyss was complete, and the enormity of result began to sink in as we danced in the aisles with the unbridled joy of victory.

Not wanting to leave we somehow found a way to a cab back to our hotel where the celebrations continued along the beach, nary a Ghanaian in sight on a night to savor for Americans that suffered through the dubious departures of previous tournaments.

UncleSam UncleDudley

I believe….. there’s more to come….

Read parts I, III, and the Finale

Posted in Brenaldo | Comments Off