Our World Cup adventure ended June 30. When it started is hard to say. The idea was first batted around very soon after Brazil was announced as hosts and planning started in earnest soon after Markus, Colin and I made a firm commitment to go about 18 months before the first ball was kicked. The planning really was pretty monstrous but added tremendously to the occasion. It was all great. We were very lucky that we could do this and that our families supported us.
It was a big deal to me personally to be able to go and while I’ve thought a fair bit about the personal significance of the trip I’m really not convinced I’ve come up with the best way to present what a World Cup trip looks and feels like never mind what Brazil feels like. But if you get a chance and you’re so into soccer that you actually read blogs like this…go. Go to a World Cup. Go with friends who share your passion for it and want to experience it the same way you do. But go.
This will be massively self-indulgent (as if blogs by nature aren’t) and probably end up being quite long but I’m writing it primarily for me as a keepsake of the trip and secondly as a something that gives those on the fence for similar trips a taste of what it’s like.
The whole FIFA ticketing process was the fulcrum around which our trip swung. It determined which cities we would go to and obviously the teams we’d see. It was a seven stage monster spread out over seven or eight months that favoured the organized to a fairly large degree. I hung out on a bigsoccer.com forum dedicated to ticketing for Brazil and learned a lot. People take this very seriously. There were some guys who had some decent hacking chops who were able to get into the FIFA ticketing website and post exactly how many tickets for each game were available. Without that you simply got a colour coded graph that let you know if there were a lot, a few or none. Then the hackers got really serious towards the end when a lot of games were sold out and occasionally you’d get people returning tickets they couldn’t use. These would go up for re-sale. Someone put together a program that automatically tracked when such tickets went up for re-sale on the site. Someone else added on a function, short-lived as FIFA managed to offset its ability, that actually went beyond notifying you and put the tickets in your account basket. You then had ten minutes to respond to an alert and complete the purchase.
So people were taking this very seriously but we just kept getting lucky in the lottery. Specifically, I got lucky in the lottery. If you want tickets you set up an account and add the people that will be using the tickets bought on your account. Each account can buy up to four tickets for seven games (so 28 tickets max). I ended up getting my full allotment. Markus got one game, Colin got two. No one we spoke could believe we got ten games through the lottery. No one we spoke to got nearly that many but the secondary market for tickets is worth a book in itself. Talk about a massive, shadowy enterprise.
So with tickets for ten games you’d think that would seem to be enough. But something was missing. We had tickets for the opening game in Sao Paolo (picked up when FIFA flooded the market five days before we left with 180 000 tickets), then two in Salvador, two in Fortaleza, one in Brasilia, one in Rio and then a final one in Brasilia. We had three others (Uruguay v Costa Rica, Belgium v Algeria and Iran v Bosnia) but logistically it was pretty much impossible to fit them in. We ate the tickets for these but I did give my Iran v Bosnia ticket on the beach in Salvador to a guy about my age with a son.
The Rio game was the only one that we went through a ticket broker, or scalper for. It may have seemed excessive as we already had so many tickets but I was the one who pushed for it because I’ve never been to Brazil before and it seemed insane to go all the way there and not see a game in the Maracana or see Rio itself. A friend got us a very good deal on those tickets. We put a deposit for half down in Vancouver with a vague-ish “See you in Rio and I’ll get them to you there.” It all worked in the end though and was just one of many times that we extended, generally out of necessity, trust to someone, often involving a large sum of cash, and never got burned.
When the tickets arrived by courier it was what made the trip become real. We had them in hand. We’d done the visas, booked the flights, settled most of our accommodation but that just made it a trip to Brazil. A fistful of tickets cemented it as a World Cup trip.
Having a Stella was a very good way to get the trip started. Colin and I were on the same flights down to SP via Seattle and New York. Markus went Air Canada owing to the fact he had a bazillion points with them. Cracking that first beer on the plane felt like we’d left work behind and could set about enjoying the next three weeks.
First thing worth noting is we arrived wary of many things we’d been warned about relating to Brazil in general (violent crime, taxi drivers who worked in cahoots with favela gangsters, super expensive cities like Rio and SP and barely functioning cities like Salvador) and World Cup specifically (airport and stadiums that weren’t completed, massive protests). Salvador is a bit iffy but the rest of the concerns were groundless. More on those later.
Every aspect of World Cup organization we encountered was top notch. From moving people to the stadiums via public transportation and getting them through the gates and into their seats, to the FIFA ticketing lottery, to the fan zones, to the volunteers at every step along the way…it was all exceptional.
Except for our first few hours at the Guarulhos Airport in SP.
This was one of two ticket pick up centres in the city. While the location was logical as it allowed people to get off their plane and pick up their tickets in one fell swoop, they clearly did not come close to correctly estimating the number of people who would be picking up tickets on the opening day and that line moved about as fast as I did a few days later playing beach soccer.
Two hours in and we were not halfway to the doors that led to where the tickets were being dispensed. The line was getting tense. About that time a tri-lingual official came out and announced that there was a second pick up centre in downtown SP, a 30-40 minute cab ride away and there was no lineup there. General skepticism was the immediate response from most in line to both the “no lineup” and “30-40 minute cab.” They clearly wanted to get people to leave this line and were likely exaggerating on both fronts. But we bit and grabbed a cab (not from the taxi stand as you’re advised to do for safety reasons). End result. Our first experience with the truly scary speeds Brazilian cabbies drive at but we were dropped at a deserted ticket centre in under 30 minutes. Took two minutes to get our tickets and head off to the subway (another no-no we’d been warned about in SP) to make our way to Corinthians Stadium for the Brazil v Croatia opening game.
Two subway stops took us to the station where the “Copa Express” left from. This was a direct train to the stadium. Totally packed with yellow jerseys on their way to support Brazil. It left every 10-15 minutes and dropped you at the station which was the closest any vehicles get get. Same in all cities. Seemed like a 3-5km perimeter was imposed at all stadia so you had to allow for a long walk to get from your taxi, bus or train to the gates.
But the walk is actually pretty great. The atmosphere builds as you see everyone moving to the gates. We were there almost four hours before the game as the Opening Ceremonies were on (waste of time) so the gates opened in plenty of time for that. The heat was offset by the relatively cheap beer and Cokes vendors were selling every 10 -20 metres along the path to the stadium. You were guided to your entry point, had your ticket scanned, pockets emptied at a metal detector a la airports and then…you were in. You were in the stadium at a World Cup soccer game. I saw many people have both private and public moments of elation coming through the gates. Some hugged, some jumped around with their friends. I remember a guy at the Colombia v Uruguay game at the Maracana in Rio come through with a group of friends and while his friends were pretty happy he couldn’t contain himself. Jumping up and shouting in Spanish once he was through. Incredulous he was there. Near tears, trying to get his head around it. Colin and I smiled from ear to ear and shook hands. “We did it.”
The only way to make the re-done Corinthians stadium look interesting is to shoot it in Pano mode on your phone. For a stadium that was one of the last to be completed, it’s really rather simple with two large stand alone stands behind each goal with absolutely zero relief from the elements. We were glad to be up high on the sides in the shade.
Aside from the Final and Semis the opening game was the most expensive. We were in for about US$430 each but it ensured we would get to see Brazil play and that was an important consideration as we planned the trip. The opening game tickets were the last ones we procured and the tenth via the FIFA lottery.
So we got our tickets and got to the stadium and got to see Brazil play in a World Cup while drinking cold beers half the price we paid at Whitecaps games. All was awesome. Aside from one trifling detail.
Marcus had bailed on the idea that we’d manage to get into the opener and arranged for an afternoon connecting flight out of SP to Salvador where we had tickets for Spain v Holland the next day. Colin and I had kept the opening game as an option by booking a late night flight after the game. As we ended up with three Opening Game tickets we had an extra to sell. The market for tickets at the stadium was desperate with many holding signs. Asking prices were closing in on $2000 per ticket. We were looking to make money on ours to offset the losses we were going to incur by eating tickets to the three games we’d bought but wouldn’t be able to get to. We also wanted to get it done quickly and get into the stadium.
The crowd getting off the Copa Express and making its way to the stadium was dense and plodding. We stopped at a guy holding a “Ticket Needed” sign and within a minute had settled on $1000 for the ticket. He was the happiest Mexican in Brazil. What we realized in retrospect was that when we stopped it drew attention and several poked their heads in to see what was up. I can picture the guy who stole Colin’s tickets from his front pocket. I’m almost certain of it. But he was good and Colin felt nothing. All his tickets aside from the two that we’d just picked up in downtown SP (thankfully this included the opening game) were gone.
It wasn’t until we were in the stadium a good hour or two that I saw Colin looking glum. This made no sense and I waited for it to pass. He said later that that was probably about the time he realized his tickets were gone and he was deciding to whether to tell me then or let me enjoy the game and tell me afterwards. He had decided to let me enjoy the game but that resolve lasted about a minute.
“My tickets are gone. Somebody’s picked my pocket.”
My amateur reassurances were accepted graciously but it took a couple more beers before we both moved on and realized there was nothing that could be done. In the end, through luck and persistence, Colin saw one more than the eight games Markus and I saw.
My biggest concern heading to Brazil was not being a victim of violent crime or getting food poisoning or anything along those lines. From what I read the concern was going to be how Brazil coped with the massive increase in domestic air travel during the World Cup with already over-burdened airports, some of which were nowhere near finished the upgrades that had been mandated and needed for the World Cup.
After seeing Brazil beat Croatia 3-1 it was time for another white knuckle ride back to the airport to grab our bags and catch a midnight flight to Salvador. By checking in and getting our boarding pass in the morning when we arrived in SP and by only travelling with a carry on bag we simplified the process considerably and saved valuable time. I wish every airport experience I have from now on is as organized and hassle free as our five domestic flights in Brazil.
We got into Salvador around 2am and were soon in a taxi to our Salvador digs. Accommodation had been the biggest challenge in the planning of the trip. The World Cup pricing for virtually every place was around 500% over regular prices. And they were still hard to find.
Through the very helpful BigSoccer.com forums dedicated to the World Cup, I’d been able to hook up with an English guy, David, who’d rented a beachfront villa with about five bedrooms for the whole World Cup. He and a rotating cast of friends were going to be staying with him while they were in Brazil and he still had some bedrooms available for certain dates. We lucked out and get a bedroom for the three of us with an en suite for US$250/night. At around $80/night each for a place on a stunning beach with swimming pools in the front and back along with a tennis court, it was a steal.
It was all very Pablo Escobar-ish and being off season and 40 minutes from downtown in a very exclusive strip resort area, the beach was pretty much deserted. But what a beach.
We arrived close to 3am after going past two checkpoints with armed guards at both. We had to essentially break in through the locked driveway gate but then found the house wide open. Parched, I immediately went for a glass of water from the same sort of 4 gallon purified water dispenser you see in North America all the time. As I took my first sip I noticed bits of grit in the water. It was pretty dark in the house so I wasn’t sure what it was and figured it was a dirty glass. Gave it a rinse and tried again but got the same result. As it was late and I was tired I took a chance and just had a big glass of tap water.
As we got into our room Markus woke up. His first words were ominous. “Hey guys. Check your beds. I think I got most of the spiders but you may want to have a look.” He’d killed 10-15 spiders he figured. I was too tired to care.
When we woke up in the morning we met our new English friends. Really good guys. David kept them organized but huge fans all of them and several had done the same sort of trip in 2010 in South Africa. Before I could ask, one of them said, “Right, I’ve sorted out the problem with the water dispenser.” I asked what the problem had been. “You don’t want to know.” Actually I did because I’d had at least a mouthful. “You sure?” Yes I was. “There was a big, dead cockroach squished between the mouth of the 4 gallon bottle and where it fed into the dispenser. That had caused it to gradually disintegrate and filter through the system.” Good start.
As it turned out they had spares for both Spain v Holland and Germany v Portugal, our two games in Salvador and kindly sold them to Colin at face value. This gave him a window of about a week to battle with FIFA to get the rest of his tickets replaced. Their opening gambit was to quote policy back to him: “We don’t replace lost or stolen tickets.” He gradually wore them down to the point where they said get a police report and get back to us.
Our beach villa was really not in Salvador. It was to the north east of the city, which is the third largest in Brazil after SP and Rio. It is also a big, violent mess slowly collapsing upon itself through a combination of poverty and incompetent local government. The cab ride in to the stadium showed us why many Brazilians were at best antipathetic to hosting the World Cup at best to outraged at worst. Our walk from cab drop off point to stadium took us past an unfinished subway station at one point. Salvador started building it’s subway in 1997. It is still unfinished. None of it functions. Beyond that the level of poverty you see, for long stretches, is disturbing enough for tourists but for those living in it and confronted by it on a daily basis, the idea of the sums spent by their government is logically cause for strong protest.
So our forays into town the four days we were there were to see games and the one day we went in to see the historic old town, based around Pelourinho, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It was beautiful. Colourful old buildings, cobble stone streets, thousands of World Cup tourists pouring out of typical tourist shops, bars and restaurants. It was the place many came to watch games and full restaurants accommodated them with extra TV’s set up on the pedestrian streets outside their premises. It was really a nice oasis from most of what we saw in Salvador and the perimeter was heavily fortified, as all tourist areas were in both Salvador and later Fortaleza, with combinations of police and military. If you looked like you were going to stray beyond the patrolled confines of the old town you were warned by police, “Don’t go down that street. You’ll get stabbed.” The taxi stand at the edge of the festivities was run by police who told you to wait, then signalled for a cab to come and ensured you got in and the driver knew where you wanted to go.
So more importantly, we shook off the jet lag and got in to see Spain v Holland. Readers of this blog know I’m a big, big fan of both Barcelona and the Spanish national team. I got to see both play this summer and getting to see Xavi play for both was a personal highlight for me. Like up there with the kids being born highlight. He didn’t do too much versus Holland but it didn’t matter. We saw Iniesta and Xavi. On the field. Together.
We also saw van Persie score that stunner. It was right in front of our seats about 25 rows up, right on the edge of the box. We all just looked at each other, immediately realizing we’d probably seen the best goal of the tournament and it was only the second day. I do believe that a healthy, slightly younger Puyol in the lineup would have seen a different result in that game. Yes, Robben was rampant and Casillas, Pique and several others were a combination of overconfident initially and overwhelmed later on but Puyol would have had that back four drop 5-10 yards as soon as the ball went wide to Blind. Their line was way too high to deal with a diagonal ball in behind them from there and van Persie took advantage of the space and scored the best headed goal I’ve ever seen. Not bitter though…
In and around the stadium for Spain v Holland in Salvador
Meanwhile back at the villa it was time to kick back and enjoy the beach. The English guys got a beach soccer game going. When Colin saw that he wouldn’t be embarrassed by the standard he went and joined them, notching a few early doors to the surprise of our hosts. I joined soon after and didn’t notch, to the surprise of no one. Markus joined a bit later and I clattered him five minutes in but not nearly as much as one of the three Brazilians who wandered by and joined us. These guys were 18-22 years old by the looks of it and two were big, strong boys. One just wanted to do scissor kicks all day but another was keen to show us all how he’s studied at the Butcher of Bilbao School of Defending. Markus got the worst of it and still had battle scars well above the ankle when he flew home over two weeks later.
Germany v Portugal was three days later (seriously how do you beat Brazil v Croatia on Thursday, Spain v Holland on Friday and Germany v Portugal on Monday to kick off your trip?) and as we again had a flight out right after the game we had to drop our bags at the airport on the way to the game as we wouldn’t have enough time to get back to the villa to get them after the game. Bag storage in Salvador was looking dodgy when we dropped them off and downright idiotic when we picked up. They were overwhelmed and filled their one “secured” room so they simply took the rest to the far end of the airport and put the excess bags, including ours, against the wall with a line divider (or stanchions) being the only thing separating them from everyone walking about. There didn’t even seem to be anyone watching them from what we could tell. Still, all our stuff was there when we picked it up. Trust extended, honesty returned.
After seeing Germany completely dismantle Portugal and knowing Spain were on the ropes while Brazil had hardly impressed against Croatia, we were pretty unanimous that Germany were now the favourites to win it all.
Post game we were off to Fortaleza, where we would spend the next ten days, half our time in Brazil. As a result we’d put a lot of effort into getting the accommodation right for this leg. In our case, getting it right meant really going out on a limb to trust a property manager for an apartment we found on Booking.com and spending a ton of money.