In this episode, we actually get on the road and watch a game or two.
2. NATAL: PIPA PASSES
We were headed south, so naturally the first leg of our flight down was up to Toronto, and if you think that’s stupid, one potential route had us flying via Lisbon. Pearson Airport’s a hell of a lot nicer than it was when we had a similar connection to Germany in 2006, affording us a comfortable spot to watch the Netherlands beat the living snot out of Spain before we boarded for São Paulo.
It was a pretty nice flight down to Brazil, minus the center section packed with Ecuadoreans who were unhappy to be asked not to spend an entire overnight flight singing. I saw some people on the plane wearing shirts from a Make a Wish chapter in Alberta. “Huh, must have volunteered for something,” I thought. Then at baggage claim in São Paulo, I noticed a kid, maybe 9 years old or so, with patchy hair and a Spain jersey, and I realized this kid just started his Make a Wish trip by watching the aforementioned Netherlands-Spain game. I am a horrible person.
Since our tickets depended on the group stage outcome, we couldn’t have them mailed to us in advance, and instead had to pick up the tickets at an official collection point. They did the same thing in South Africa, and it wasn’t a big deal. Oh, hey, there’s a collection point at the international airport in SP! Great! Our flight gets in at…4am…and they open at 9…and our connection leaves at 11…huh. Well, what about getting them in Natal? No airport pickup, just a shopping center one, and it’s in the complete opposite direction of the house we rented. Ugh. We decided to take our chances with the airport pickup; upon clearing customs and re-checking our luggage, we went and camped out in front of the ticket booth. We weren’t the only ones, either; after about half an hour, a line had started to form behind us. The line grew large enough that at 7am, the management came out and said “y’know what, we have enough volunteers here to open early, and you have flights to catch, so we’re opening now.” Awesome! We got our group stage and final tickets–knockout round would have to be picked up at the end of the group stage–and headed off to kill a few hours listening to the “Your attention, please! The 1970’s sitcom is about to start” chimes of the airport public address system.
You like people-watching? Visit the host country’s international air hub the opening weekend of the World Cup. Must’ve seen delegates from every country, the most impressive which was what appeared to be the entire population of Costa Rica coming through the terminal at once. Overseeing all of this nonsense was a squadron of heavily armed Paulinho Blarts tooling around on Segways.
Our flight from São Paulo to Natal was mysteriously delayed about an hour, with no announcement or explanation. As much as everyone panicked about Brazil’s air travel infrastructure not being able to handle the World Cup demands, this was honestly the only real delay or hiccup we had with our flights within Brazil; everything else went smoothly. Smoother than at home, in fact. In the event the US gets to host another World Cup, the TSA full search restrictions and the airline “every checked bag costs more” fundraisers ain’t gonna cut it. Brazilian airport security is mostly pre-9/11 straightforward X-rays and metal detectors, and everyone expects you’ll be checking your luggage. Super convenient and easy to manage, with concessions on the outside of the security areas so your friends can see you off while getting a bite to eat.
Upon landing in Natal, the reason for the delay became clear: It was pouring Old Testament rain. And the cabbie we’d booked, the only one in Pipa who was available to haul a party of five, was nowhere to be found. We had to split into groups, and Mike would have to take a separate cab later, which meant Mike would have to meet us at the house. Which would be great, except the house was set off the main road a bit and not particularly obvious to find, especially after dark, during a rainstorm, with a carload of passengers who did not speak Portuguese. Eventually, though, we all made it to the house, got settled in, and regrouped for dinner.
The next morning, after the rain cleared up, we got a good look at the house and its surroundings. Part of a gated complex, the house was a small bungalow, similar to a studio apartment, set about 100 yards up a jasmine and plumeria lined path from Pipa’s main street. 100 yards or so further down from the street, you had the beach, designated as an eco-sanctuary and kept absolutely immaculate. The house itself was surrounded by tropical plants; every morning you’d step out on the porch to watch hummingbirds go to town on heliconia flowers. The house had a kitchen, a living/sleeping area, and a porch with a patio table and hammocks for days. As is common in Brazilian beach houses, shower facilities were located outside, separated from the main bathroom area by a small curtain. At first, you were a bit intimidated by the idea of cleaning up outside, but after a few minutes, you quickly got into “YEAH MAN I’M ALL NAKED OUTSIDE WOOOOOO!”
Vanessa, our hostess, lived a few steps away from our house, and down the stairs from ours was a pool and barbecue area that we unfortunately did not get to use. Her boyfriend worked for the only fancy brewery in town, and stocked the fridge with what I am told were delicious and reasonably priced (about US $4/bottle, not cheap relative to regular Brazilian beer but good for craft brew) beers, all bearing stickers with the 32 World Cup nations’ crests. This was the first house I’d booked when we started planning the trip, and it was a winner; came with everything we needed for five people for five days, including a stray cat with a bent ear who decided we were his new best friends.
Also it came with mosquitoes, as did Recife and Manaus. I spent the entire group stage looking like I’d gotten chicken pox. This is after slathering on DEET every few hours, too.
That Sunday, the five of us–me, Mike, and our friends Bamboo, Earl, and Erica, all from LA and all in for their first World Cup–hung out at the beach and strolled Pipa’s main street, spending the day relaxing in town and gearing up for the next day’s all-important US-Ghana game.
Gameday: After breakfast, we all get dressed in the tasteful, understated manner expected of World Cup spectators and meet at our pal Kaela’s rental house to form a group caravan. Much like in South Africa, a good couple dozen people from all over the US went in on gameday transport; unlike South Africa, this was not via van, but rather a convoy of taxis. Also much like in South Africa, Mike and I (and our housemates) decided to abandon the group at the first place we saw that looked like a good place to hang out pregame, rather than continue on to try to find some place someone may or may not have said to meet up. The five of us stuck around a restaurant and chatted with anyone else within earshot as we watched Germany flatten Portugal.
After posing for a bunch of dumb photos in the cosplay photoshoot that is the area surrounding any given World Cup stadium, we finally headed into the game and discovered our tickets were the very last row of the nosebleed section. Eh, happened in Germany, and whatever, last row is still in the stadium. Then we discovered the seat number printed on my ticket did not exist. Not, like, there was a space for it and the seat had not been installed, or had been moved to accommodate a disability seating area. Nope, flat out no seat and nowhere it could possibly be. We looked over at the adjacent section to see an usher speaking to a Japanese fan who appeared to be in the same predicament.
The usher took the three of us to the ticket service office, and, after a brief discussion, the staff were able to print up new tickets for us. Our stubs just say “MATCHDAY CONTINGENCY–FIFA COMPLIMENTARY” rather than our names, but hey, they were tickets to real seats. Better ones than we originally had, in fact–we were in the first row of the upper deck. Turns out the Japanese fan, now seated with us, was from Tokyo, but thanks to Matsuzaka and Uehara is a big Red Sox fan. SPORTS
POWER RANKINGS: SHIT THAT NEVER, EVER GETS OLD AT THE WORLD CUP
1. Singing your national anthem, poorly, loudly, with everyone else
2. Watching Clint Dempsey score and think “I’ve known that dude since his first pro game”
3. The explosion of hugs and hi-fives that follows your team scoring; it’s like bowing and saying “namaste” at the end of yoga class except with beer being thrown on you
4. Impromptu best buddies with anyone in your seating section who vaguely shares a language with you
Now, remember when I said Brazil required a fair bit more homework to get to than Germany? If you’re going on a US passport, you need a visa; they were free with proof of ticket purchase, but otherwise cost $160. You’ll also have to send away for it, or spend some time at a nearby consulate. Getting a group stage game in Manaus meant malaria medication was advised, as well as typhoid and yellow fever vaccinations (plus anything else you need renewed). You also had to find airfare and housing for each group city, plus normal travel expenses. Even if you took the American Outlaws package deal, you still had to get yourself to one of the departure cities, and even if you were only able to make one game (as our LA-based housemates were), you still had to get all the paperwork and transportation together first, and there’s always whatever arrangements anyone needs to make with work, school, or family to take off vacation time. You can argue that these are just fans with that kind of disposable income, but the fact remains they’re fans who made this the priority for what to do with that disposable income. Bottom line: Even one game was a pretty serious time and money commitment; this was not just showing up at RFK for a weekend friendly.
Which is why it was all the more surprising to strike up the national anthems, look around, and realize that even though officially Ghana was the “home” team for this match, this was a US home crowd. Yes, the “I BELIEVE” chant is cheesy and simple, but it was something more than just “U-S-A” that got the crowd organized and yelling for the entire game. And it’s one thing to have the whole crowd doing that routine in Kansas City; it’s quite another to have a stadium full of Bomb Pops blowing up in Natal, Brazil. I’ve got some reservations about American soccer fandom, for sure, but to feel that stadium shake as Brooks slid home, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean when I say that ‘94-14 has been a golden age for the sport in the US at every level.
After the game, Mike and I walked out to the spot where we’d arranged to meet our housemates. A tall, military-lookin’ gent walked up to us and asked if we were Americans. “I’m from Vice President Biden’s Secret Service detail,” he said. He wanted to buy a US jersey, but the souvenir stands took only Visa cards and Brazilian currency, neither of which he had. Would we be able to convert $50 US to reais?
“Heck yeah,” said Mike, and the Secret Service officer gave us a really generous exchange rate. Later, we realized we either should have offered to give him the jersey off Mike’s back (an ‘06 Twellman US home) or said “sure, but can we get a photo with Diamond Joe, too?” Our photo op missed, we met up with our friends and headed back to the taxi fleet to return to Pipa.
We spent Tuesday much as we did Sunday: kicking around Pipa enjoying the beach and town. Our buddy Ed dropped in on his own super bacheloritis tour (dude rolled down with a passport and a change of underpants, pretty much) for the afternoon to take in some lunch and the fancy beer in our house. I had one priority: Pick up a surfboard and hit the waves for the first time since I discovered in 2008 that I was pretty good at surfing.
Which I did! Only I discovered I was not good at it. Oh well, still got some quality beach time that included some dolphins dropping by for a visit. While we were in the water, everyone–swimmers, fishermen, coconut vendors, dolphins, gulls–began to pack up in a hurry, as though a storm threatened to roll in. Nope–Brazil-Mexico was about to start, and nobody could miss that. Among those packing up were a trio who lived in Harvard Square, because it just wouldn’t be a World Cup without flying halfway around the globe to meet people who live in our neighborhood. Mike and I decided we could miss the first half, at least, for a brief nap on the shore.
We went back to town for the second half and wound up watching it at a family’s corner store/lunch counter, tv set up on the patio, everyone crowded around a 32” CRT set. You want a beer? We got some snacks, too, help yourself. One of the women in the family was actually from Winnipeg, but had moved back to Brazil a few years ago; we discussed how the only reason we were watching Memo Ochoa play out of his mind was the US qualified so hard we brought Mexico with us.
As fantastic as Pipa was, though, it was time for us to move on to the next venue, and so Wednesday morning we boarded another taxi caravan to the airport and joined an A321 full of other Americans. We were off to Manaus.