Ten days, three cities, three stadiums. To say a trip to the World Cup was phenomenal fun would be a massive understatement.
For a writer that waited 23 years to make up for a missed chance to play soccer in the South American host country of Brazil the experience did not disappoint, even if the only soccer played by yours truly was a midnight match on the beach of Natal. Back to that later.
The journey began for my friend Damin and I with a midday flight from Portland, Oregon to Fortaleza, Brazil, and following two stops overnight we touched down the next afternoon in this beachside city along the Northeastern coast.
The size and setting of the city was impressive, seemingly endless high rise condominiums and apartments in a densely populated metropolis flanked by the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean to one side and lush jungle to the other.
An ocean view hotel along the boardwalk near the popular Praia do Futuro area was just a short walk from the FIFA Fan Fest further down the beach, a fitting locale for our first match viewing of the opening contest of the tournament, a 3-1 Brazil win over Croatia, disputable penalty and all.
The scale of the viewing area was almost too big to take in, a massive 100 foot high and 200 foot wide screen displaying the match to upwards of 100,000 primarily pro-Brazil supporters. A few words with the media staff and we were offered front row seats to the show, the power of a microphone to open doors proving invaluable already.
Needless to say the result was well received, and to fuel the festive atmosphere there was no shortage of makeshift beer vendors on the street ready to sell you a local beer like Skol, Antarctica, Brahma or Bohemia.
The celebrations lasted late into the evening, as much for a successful start for the national selection as for the relief of the years of planning and preparation coming to fruition, in spite of protest and the perception of poor execution on part of the organizers.
A perfect start for Brazil meant everyone but Croatia woke up happy to the next day’s slate of games, and it wasn’t long before we partook in caipirinhas from the poolside bar as an already ideal setting was made all the more perfect with this level of decadence making consumption of futbol as easy as the alcohol.
Once we pulled ourselves away from the pool and crossed the street to the ocean, respite from the tropical heat was not hard to find with feet in the sand restaurants with ample tables and umbrellas waiting to serve you a cold one. The laid back vibe was coupled with a bar tab system ingenious in its simplicity, simply leave your empty bottles at the foot of the table and count them up at the end.
By the time our first match between Uruguay and Costa Rica rolled around at the weekend we were well ensconced in the rhythm of the tournament, and after catching a taxi as close to the stadium as possible we joined a sea of spectators making their way walking the final dozen or so blocks to the 60,000 seat Estadio Castelao.
From the Brazilian flags and samba music seemingly everywhere to the dumpsters equipped with goals with actual nets, there was no doubt as to how deeply football’s roots were embedded in the fabric of this society. Add to that the amalgam of other nationalities in attendance, in particular the Ticos and Uruguayans, and our immersion into the World Cup scene was complete.
Los Ticos fell behind to the favored Celeste, but a trio of goals in the second half showed that the second place team from CONCACAF was not there just to make up the numbers.
Costa Rica looked superb while Uruguay looked less than their best without controversial talisman Luis Suarez, an absence they will have to cope with again now that the Liverpool star is banned for biting an opponent for the third time in his career.
The first match played in Fortaleza set off another fiesta in a city ebullient to pull off their job as hosts at the first time of asking, and with an early bus departing to Natal in the morning, we drifted off into short slumber with dreams of revenge against Ghana in two days time firmly planted in our subconscious.