Inside a Match at the World’s Biggest Football Tournament

We’re nearly a week into the world’s biggest football tournament. There have been some questionable refereeing, a few scattered protests and a complete bludgeoning of teams from the Iberian Peninsula but all in all I think most folks would agree that Brazil has been a blast so far. Most surprising? The airports have been purely pleasant and without any of the predicted craziness and chaos, at least on the five flights via six airports your Brazil Insider has thus far been. 

Your Brazil Insider with his wife

Your Brazil Insider with his wife – photo courtesy of Kevin Raub

Your Brazil Insider hasn’t personally faired quite as well, however. This blog post was suppose to be about the Colombia X Greece match in Belo Horizonte on Day 2 of the tournament, but pickpockets operating in the secure corridor set up by FIFA to funnel match attendees to security checks managed to snag our game tickets right out of our front pocket (read: The secure corridors are not all that secure!).

Poof!

Just like that, the Colombia x Greece dream was dead. So, if you’re going to a match, heed this very serious word of warning: Do not put your tickets in your front or back pocket. Get a money belt or stuff them in your shoes or stuff them somewhere (anywhere!) that these thieves cannot reach (think jail contraband smuggling methods!). No, I’m not joking.

Colombian and Brazilian fans

Colombian and Brazilian fans – photo courtesy of Kevin Raub

At any rate, onwards and upward. This blog now comes to you by way of the USA x Ghana match in Natal two days later instead. I suppose the bright side is that since your Brazil Insider is American, he would have a better time, anyway, though it doesn’t take much to have a better time than a robbery. At any rate, logic proved correct! Luckily, we crashed with a friend who lives within walking distance of the stadium, but if the dedicated shuttle bus set up for the stadium from various strategic points around the city was anything like Belo Horizonte, things flowed seamlessly (I was impressed). We gave ourselves several hours before kickoff to arrive with plenty of time to spare for a good old American tailgate with the American Outlaws, the wild and crazy Team USA fan base, who, incidentally, bought more tickets to this football tournament than any other nation besides Brazil. It didn’t take long to find them.

The American Outlaw party, which was one of two official pre-game parties (the other being thrown by US Soccer) virtually shut down an intersection near the stadium, with police blocking traffic so American fans could run back and forth across the street to empty out a BP gas station of all it’s inebriating solutions. A nearby Habib’s, a sort of Arab-themed Taco Bell-level place, didn’t know what hit them when swarms of American fans took over the place for cheap eats prior to entering Natal’s Arena das Dunas.

Team USA's fans

Team USA’s fans – photo courtesy of Kevin Raub

Entering the stadium was crowded but smooth, with Natal opting for a gated, winding maze-style entrance to thin crowds before the metal detectors – a much better system than Belo Horizonte, whose wider lanes allowed for pickpockets to operate, as previously stated. Once through security, everything was golden. There were no lines or confusion to enter our specific gate and seeing the interior lights of the space-age Arena das Dunas for the first time was a beautiful moment. Refreshment lines were long but bathroom lines were short. Pick your battles!

We had barely found our seats – less than 50 rows from the pitch – when the Americans scored! Clint Dempsey belted home the 5th fastest goal in this tournament’s history, clocking in at just 29 seconds – right in front of us! The arena exploded. The atmosphere was electric. This would be Team USA’s night to end the Ghana curse once and for all (the African nation is notorious for beating the USA in important matches). Until the 82nd minute, things settled in, with the Ghanaians dominating possessions but creating few chances on goal. In the stands, there was a brief altercation between some Brazilians who wanted to sit and some Americans who were intent on standing; and a lot of anti-American sentiment coming from several Australians, but overall things were sailing along.

USA scored the 5th fastest goal in this tournament's history

USA scored the 5th fastest goal in this tournament’s history – photo courtesy of Kevin Raub

Then Ghana equalized. Ouch! That hurt! The USA would never get out of this group with a tie here, and you could sense the collective exasperation and dread in the stadium, which was dominated by American fans save a particularly vibrant Ghana section that ever stopped drumming the entire match! The air was sucked right out of Arena das Dunas in an instant. But four minutes later, an unlikely American hero in John Brooks, a player who could have still played for Germany until the moment he decided to step onto the pitch with an American uniform, entered the match and banged home a dramatic header off a corner kick to seal the win for the USA in the 88th minute, a dramatic bookend to compliment the early heroics of Dempsey. Wow!

Living abroad, I have come to understand that where sports are concerned, the world often associates Americans with a never-give-up, it’s-not-over-until-it’s-over attitude that for me was just part of life growing up in athletics in the States. But I now realize it’s an often respected trait of Americans that the USA reinforces time and time again. And people admire the USA for that.

Even the people who just wish we would sit down.

Arena das Dunas, Natal

Arena das Dunas, Natal – photo courtesy of Kevin Raub

TAM Airlines operate nearly 50 flights per week between Miami, New York and Orlando to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. From there, domestic flights on TAM are available to all host cities.

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