When you first land in a new country one of the major requirements is drinking the local beer to gage how the trip will go. Smooth, cheap beers with a bit of aftertaste means heavy drinking with heavy hangovers (think Thailand, China, Panama). The beer that assaults your tastes buds from the first sip, yet are unavoidable because lack of other options (South Korea, Russia) will make for hangovers that reduce you to a fetal position, shielding your eyes from any natural or man-made light. Brazil’s beers fell somewhere in the middle of those two. After the initial night of drinking those beverages, we retired to our apartment, cranked our 1974 style window air conditioning unit and awoke the next morning to heavy rain showers and low grey clouds.
Between the five of us staying in the 400 sq. ft apartment, we had enough USA schwag to arm an extended family in Kentucky for a 4th of July BBQ. Now here you might be thinking “What is schwag?” or you are thinking “Do I want to know what an “extended” family in Kentucky looks like?” I’ll answer neither of those questions and move on to the reason we flew 3,000 miles south, USA v. Germany, the last match in the World Cup Group of Death. Waking up 6 inches from my friend’s face (we shared a pull-out couch), I looked outside and could see nothing but gray outside our 18th floor balcony. Normally, we could glance down the street at the greenish-blue ocean but today, on the day we were supposed to sit outside in a stadium and cheer on our countrymen, nothing but hard rain and clouds.
Before we could even apply the face paint, a few ominous messages rolled in via social media and texts. “You friends should leave very early, flooding everywhere, traffic terrible, I fear you will not make game,” a text from the normally cheery landlord of the apartment read. The previous night on my flight from Miami to Brasilia, I had met a guy from Fort Lauderdale traveling with his 3 children, his mother-in-law, and his wife to visit some family in Recife. After 8 hours next to him on the plane, out of respect for his task and sympathy for his situation, I offered him one of my extra 9 tickets I had obtained for the USA v. Germany. If anyone deserves to go see USA v. Germany, it’s the guy traveling across continents with his 3 daughters, wife, and mother-in-law. (I love all of those people in my life, for the record).
He was set to pick us up from our apartment in his rented mini-van at 10am for the 1pm game. Various texts later, we realized something was amiss, he had traveled roughly 3 kilometers in 2 hours from his hotel in the southern part of the city. I called him 30 minutes later to check his progress and he sounded like someone had kicked him in the nuts, and then for good measure kicked his dog in the nuts as well, and the dog had died from the kick. His answers were so short and depressing that I had to cut the conversation short. I turned to the crew and said “we don’t have a ride, let’s go find the subway.”
We knew the subway was somewhat close and had heard that people were planning on taking it to the game the night before. It was a complicated process, one that involved a taxi, two trains, and then a bus to the stadium. The goal was to avoid that by hopping a ride with the mini-van guy. It was pouring as we left the apartment, we all had raincoats but they were doing little to stop the downpour from drenching us. We made it literally 2 blocks from the condo before we paused, looked at each other, and then realized we had no idea where the subway was and there wasn’t one taxi around anywhere. It was late enough that I think everyone, in the back of their minds, was thinking horrible thoughts of traveling this far then missing the match. The stadium was 40 kilometers north of this strange city and we had no idea where to go or what to do.
A silver SUV circled us. The windows were tinted so we couldn’t see intention but it was clear he was paying attention to us. This was it. Everyone had told me we would be abducted, murdered, have our kidneys sold to the black market, and for once, everyone’s assumptions were about to come true. It slowed to a stop and a good-sized man with dark hair and sunglasses on his head popped out suddenly. He opened the back door of his SUV, presumably to show us his illegal cargo…or two baby seats, whichever.
“Are you going to the game? I’m going, come in my car,” he yelled, shaking all of our hands as he walked around the car jumping over gigantic puddles. With little other options available, and the baby seats reassuring our fears, we piled in his SUV, two of us jammed in the way-back, two of us in the middle with the baby seats, and yours truly riding shotgun. He claimed he knew a way to the stadium that would bypass a lot of the flooding we had heard about. Even with his wipers on full-speed and barely able to see out of his windshield he high-tailed it through winding roads cruising through shanty towns in an attempt to make kickoff. He was from the same well-to-do neighborhood that we were staying in and had a daughter and a wife named Fabiana. He worked in “logistics” and had traveled the world. He was Miguel, our Brazilian guardian angel.
We made it to the highway but still had 20+ kilometers to go before we were anywhere near the stadium. Pulling onto the highway it immediately came to a stand-still. Miguel had me scroll through his iPhone and access the Waze app to find out where the problem lied. After four or five minutes of waiting and going nowhere, Miguel jerked the wheel to the right, yelled “FIFA Lane!” and plowed off the side of the road into what should have been the shoulder. Brazilian shoulders are basically just a drop off of pavement then grasses and giant holes. He cruised around using me as his navigator and asking questions like “Jared, you think that hole is too big for car?” to which I’d respond “Listen, man, that hole is covered in water, I honestly don’t have any idea how deep it is and don’t like advising you on depths of potholes because eventually I’m going to be wrong.” We came to one section of the highway where there was 3-4 feet of water and all motorcycles had stopped. The larger cars went through at a snail’s pace but all four lanes had to widdle down to one to make the crossing.
Miguel plowed through the crossing and took advantage of the FIFA lanes a few more times before we reached the stadium with 25 minutes to spare. We serenaded him with chants and showered him with gratitude. He responded by reaching over the center console and giving my kidney a squeeze. I glanced over, he winked, I smiled, and we were off to the World Cup match.
The entire parking lot of the restaurant where we parked was filled with USA fans applying face paint, downing beers and chanting for their country. We elected to start walking to the stadium and get beers there in lieu of beers at the restaurant with all the lunatics. Luckily, in Brazil during the World Cup they sell beer everywhere. 30 seconds after leaving the parking lot, a man with a cooler was selling $2 cans of beer. We each grabbed a few for the walk.
The stadium was in the middle of the forest. Trees surrounded the stadium everywhere one looked. The rationale being that the city would eventually expand to surround the stadium. Through my own luck, and doing, I had 9 extra tickets to the USA v. Germany match and had plans to sell all of them to make up for the expensive airline ticket I had just purchased. I would not recommend trying to sell 8 tickets to a premier match 30 minutes before the start. My stress level was extremely high trying to track down the people I had previously set up the deal with via Craigslist (I can’t believe Craigslist people turn out to be so shady, who knew?) I gave two tickets to my friend Hillery and told her to meet a German guy at a gate and accept nothing less than the originally agreed upon price. My friends, quickly discovering that I was in a mess of extra tickets and finding random strangers, grabbed their tickets from me and set off.
Completely soaked, I walked up to the gate to enter with my ticket. The seconds felt like hours as I waited for the ticket taker’s scanner to turn from red to green, but once it did, goosebumps shot through my body. I was at the mother flippin’ World Cup. 5+ years of dreaming about it, saving for it, I had just entered the stadium and it felt wonderful.
You can’t give proper justice to what it’s like to be at a massive World Cup match over a blog, so I won’t try. I’ll just give you my takeaways from the experience.
1) The entire crowd was probably 70% USA supporters, and hearing 35,000 people chant U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A, as they kicked off the match was one of the greatest sporting experiences of my life. (Because I know you’ll ask—Watching Pistons win 2004 Championship in person, and Magglio Ordonez sending Tigers to 2006 World Series with a monster homer shot in the bottom of the 9th are up there as well).
2) Soccer is a great sport to watch live. No commercials, instant replays, or fouls where the clock stops for multiple minutes. Non-stop action, all the time. Of course, that also means that you have to time your bathroom breaks perfectly and your beer refills accordingly.
3) US supporters still don’t know soccer, and that’s ok…for now. Multiple idiotic calls for fouls, offsides, red cards, and just general tomfoolery left for a lot to be desired of the cheering section. I will admit, they made up for their lack of knowledge by bringing the noise and energy so you can’t really hate on that.
The only problem with having a chant that goes “I believe that we will win” and then you lose is the clowning that occurs afterward by the opposing supporters, all of whom’s mastery of the English language is very questionable. We heard a “I believe that you have lost” chant, a “I believe that you are going to the airport chant” and a “I believe that you stink” chant. Well-played Germany.
4) The greatest souvenir you can get from a World Cup match is a beer cup. Forget jerseys, t-shirts that will shrink in 5 weeks, or soccer balls. Brahma, the local equivalent of Budweiser printed cups that said World Cup USA v. Germany on them and they are keepers. Sadly we all know plastic never decomposes, so I’ll be drinking beer out of that cup when I’m 79 years old.
The US needed just a tie to secure our place in the knockout round, as did Germany, so both teams played relatively conservative. It didn’t lessen the experience but seeing the US score a goal would have been pretty epic. The actual highlight of the match might have been when they announced the Portugal/Ghana score which officially sent the US out of the “group of death” and into the tournament. The team celebrated as if they had won and came over to our section to blow us kisses. Have you ever been blown a kiss by Clint Dempsey? I have.
That night we wandered the streets of Recife, a city of 3 million on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean watching intense beach soccer. We visited street food stalls (beef wrapped in cheese and barbecued was the winner). We still wore our jerseys, our facepaint, and our beaded red white and blue necklaces because even though we had lost, by advancing alone we actually had won and it felt damn good. The win not only secured the USA 2nd place in the group but the draw sent them to Salvador, 675 kilometers south for a gigantically huge match the following week. After 5 years of planning and saving, everything was magically falling into place, our motley crew was headed to the south, to a highly recommended, funky city called Salvador.
Part 2 coming soon.