Category: Sports

World Cup Brazil 2014: Part 1 – Sao Paulo-Recife-Natal for USA vs. Ghana and Japan vs. Greece

I started my world cup trip flying from Santiago to Sao Paulo on June 14th. I planned to see some friends and then fly onto Recife, then take a bus up to Natal to arrive in time for the USA game on the 16th, but as I got off the plane in Sao Paulo, I realized I didn’t feel well. After the hour trip to the hotel, I was really feeling it and decided to take a nap. I woke up an hour later with the chills in my 75 degree hotel room. I pumped the heat up to 90 and proceeded to not leave my hotel room for the next day and a half. I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to make it to the USA/Ghana game, but thought to myself, there’s only a world cup once every four years, you have to go.

I pumped myself full of aspirin and water and left the hotel at 130am to fly to Recife. Luckily the medicine started to kick in and I slept the entire flight. I arrived in Recife at 6am, feeling a bit better, but still very weak. I needed to get from the airport to the bus station to get one of the three busses that would take me to Natal in time to meet my friends before the USA game.

Open in test mode!
Open in test mode!

The fan assistance staff told me to take the metro, but as soon as I walked over the 90% completed new bridge that was “open in test mode” and saw a packed metro, I decided I was going to take a taxi. Luckily I negotiated a price beforehand instead of going by the meter, as there was massive traffic. Recife, Brazil’s 5th largest city, with a population of about 5m in the metro area, has an amazing coast line, but the interior of the city is very poor.

I immediately could see why Brazilians had been protesting the world cup. There’s no highway that goes across the city. The roads are pocked with pot holes that are big enough to eat your car. There’s a decent homeless population living in the streets. And you can tell people are struggling to get by.

Because traffic was so bad, the taxi driver asked me if we could take an alternate route. I agreed and we went through neighborhoods instead of the main road. I saw feral pigs eating trash, kids wearing shorts and nothing else, dilapidated houses and people with just their basic needs being met.

Recife’s new stadium, located in the middle of nowhere, about 15km outside of the city, cost taxpayers $250m and probably another $100m on infrastructure to get people there. With the conditions away from the rich areas, it’s easy to see why people are mad.

730am. I finally got to the bus station and got in line for a bus ticket. I had tried to buy my ticket online at least 10 times, plus asked Brazilian friends to buy for me, but nobody succeeded. I was greeted by a 25 person line, but wasn’t worried because I was only a “3 hour bus ride” from Natal and the game started at 7pm. The line barley moved. Two of the three people who were working, decided they didn’t want to work anymore and left their posts, so the line moved even slower.

When I finally got to the front of the line, the clerk told me all the tickets were sold out for the 830, 9 and 1030 busses. The only one available was at 330. Which would mean that if there were any delays, I’d miss the game. There were hundreds of other people in the same situation as I was. Except almost none of them spoke Portuguese or spanish. None of the workers spoke English.

My new friends and I started planning the hour long taxi ride back to the airport and then renting a car, or taking a taxi the three and a half hours up to Natal, but just as we were about go back to the airport, a family behind me in line told me they had an extra ticket for the bus at 9am. I was the only one traveling alone, so I was saved! Or so I thought.

I asked the bus company if I could use the ticket and they said no. Apparently there’s a Brazilian law that says the name on the ticket needs to match your id. Great. I decided to try to get on the bus anyway. I had to “tip” the id checker, but I got past the first obstacle. He warned me that if the police stopped the bus for an “ID control,” and my name didn’t match the ticket, I’d be taken to jail (or have to pay a big “tip”). It was worth the risk. I didn’t want to miss the game. To be extra safe, I gave my passport and my ids to another guy from the US and planned to tell the police that someone had stolen my ID.

330pm. The three hour bus ride turned into a 6 hour bus ride. All the people who’d taken later busses would miss the game. I finally got to the bus terminal and took a taxi to our apartment and finally, after almost 15 hours of traveling, I met up with my friends. A guy offered us a ride to the stadium, but the traffic was so bad we had to get out and walk. The stadium is right in the middle of the city, but the city just isn’t made for lots of traffic. Our driver told us that the city’s traffic is “chaos” normally, but on gameday it was insane. It was 15 minutes before the game and we decided to make a run for it. We arrived just as the national anthem was starting.

After 15 hours of travel, running the last 10 minutes, we made it.
After 15 hours of travel, running the last 10 minutes, we made it. USA-Ghana, Natal.

There’s nothing like singing your country’s national anthem at the first game of the world cup. And the US had at least 20,000 fans belting it out. Thirty seconds later, Clint Dempsey beat a Ghana defender and scores a goal. The crowd erupts. A few minutes later, Jozy Altidore’s world cups ends and you can see Jurgen Klinsmann say “shit” on the big screen. The next 80 minutes the US is handing on for dear life and finally Ghana equalizes. We were devastated.  Five minutes later, John Brooks scores and the party is on. This was probably my favorite game of the tournament for the US.

USA Ghana Natal
USA Ghana Natal

We stayed the next three day on the beach in Ponta Negra, playing soccer on the beach and relaxing. The beach was an all day party of music, soccer, beach food, beers and caipirinhas. In Natal you don’t need to go to a bar or a restaurant, you can just wait for the vendors to come by and sell you food. Crabs, lobsters, shrimp, skewered meat, fruit, whatever you want. At night, the beach promenade turned into a party, as guys pushed “mobile juke boxes” around playing whatever songs you wanted for a bit of money.

The crew in Natal
The crew in Natal

I was still really sick, so I went to a pharmacy to buy some drugs. I quickly realized that you can get pretty much any drug in Brazil without a prescription. I got a super strong inhaler and some other drugs to help me get better and within 2 days I was pretty much back to normal! It was clear that Natal was just getting to be a tourist destination, as many of the hotels and attractions were pretty new. It didn’t make much sense as a world cup city, but I would go back to the beaches!

On our 4th day in Natal we spent the morning at the beach, then made the trek across town again to the stadium to see Japan take on Greece. Although it ended 0-0, the game was highly entertaining. The greeks got a red card in the first half and the Japanese pushed forward to try to get a goal the rest of the game. We were in the middle of the Japanese supporters section, which was a real treat. The fans stood the entire game, chanting, singing and waving their blue plastic bags. After the game, many of the fans used the blue plastic bags to clean up the stadium.

I had a great time in Natal, but was ready to move onto Recife and Costa Rica Italy the next day!

World Cup Brazil 2014

Brazil was my third straight world cup. It’s a trip I look forward to for four years. It’s the best time to travel to a country, as everyone is happy (at least to start), people want to show off their country and you get to meet interesting people from all over the globe. I saw more matches and travelled more this world cup than the previous two and had an amazing time. All that said, I now completely understand why many Brazilians were angry about having the world cup. FIFA’s corruption really knows no bounds. See the rest of the posts below for the full story!

Games Attended: 10

  • USA-Ghana – Natal
  • Japan-Greece – Natal
  • Italy-Costa Rica – Recife
  • USA-Portugal – Manaus
  • Netherlands-Chile – Sao Paulo
  • Italy-Uruguay – Natal
  • USA-Germany – Recife
  • Costa Rica-Greece – Recife
  • USA-Belgium – Salvador
  • Netherlands-Costa Rica – Salvador

Distance Travelled: 14,676 miles (23,615km)

Cities Visited:

  • Sao Paulo
  • Natal
  • Recife
  • Manaus
  • Salvador
  • Brasilia (just the airport)

Best Matches: 

  • For a neutral – USA-Portugal, Italy-Uruguay, USA-Belgium & Costa Rica-Netherlands.
  • For a USA fan – USA-Ghana

Favorite Stadium – Fonte Nova – Salvador

The Fonte Nova stadium is a historic stadium in the middle of Salvador. It’s a short walk from the old city, the beach and has easy access from four directions. It’s a unique stadium, as its located on a lake right in the middle of a favela. On game days it seemed safe. Many of the locals came down to buy and sell tickets, beer, water and street food.

The stadium itself is a little big for my taste and some of hte seats weren’t that great, but the overall combination of the location, design and history makes it the best stadium I went to.

IMG_3471 IMG_3422 IMG_3423

Favorite City – Salvador

Founded in 1500 by the Portuguese, Salvador was the original capital of Brazil. It’s got miles and miles of beaches. An old city filled with bars and live music and an historic, downtown stadium.

Most impressive individual player

It’s a tie:

Arjen Robben – A complete game changer. I saw him in person in 2010 and felt the same way. Say what you want about diving, but his skill, speed, passing and shooting really stand out as the best player on the field in person.

Alexis Sánchez – He’s only 5-7, but he makes things happen. The ball just sticks to his foot. He gets the ball, backs into defenders a foot taller than him and somehow keeps the ball and gets around them. really impressive player in person.

Most Impressive Fans:

Chile – Per capita, Chile had the most fans at the world cup, or so it seemed. They were the loudest fanbase of any that I saw. Plus finishing the national anthem a capella is impressive.

Chilean fans in Sao Paulo
Chilean fans in Sao Paulo

Best Beach:

Porto de Galinhas, a small town about 30 minutes south of Recife, has everything you want in a beach town. Beautiful, warm water, good restaurants, bars and close enough to a big city to take a day trip if necessary.


My Trip

Part 1 – Sao Paulo-Recife-Natal for USA-Ghana

USA Ghana Natal
USA Ghana Natal

I started out flying from Santiago to Sao Paulo on the 14th. I planned to see some friends and then fly onto Recife, then take a bus up to Natal to arrive in time for the USA game, but as I got off the plane in Sao Paulo, I realized I didn’t feel well. After the hour trip to the hotel, I was really feeling it and decided to take a nap. I woke up an hour later with the chills in my 75 degree hotel room. I pumped the heat up to 90 and proceeded to not leave my hotel room for the next day and a half. I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to make it to the USA/Ghana game, but thought to myself, there’s only a world cup once every four years, you have to go.

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Part 2 – Recife-Porto de Galhinas for Italy Costa Rica


On the morning of 20th, we left Natal at 6am in our rental car, hoping to make it to Recife in time to grab a bite to eat and have a few pregame beers before the 1pm kickoff. We drove through sugar cane fields and beautiful rolling hills and made it to the outskirts of Recife by 10am, but quickly realized that things would be different as we got closer to the city…

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Part 3 – Manaus-Sao Paulo-Natal for USA Portugal, Chile Netherlands and Italy Uruguay

Sao Paulo - Chile/Netherlands
Sao Paulo – Chile/Netherlands

After relaxing in Porto de Galinhas, I left my group to travel 5400 miles in three days to see USA/Portugal, Chile/Netherlands and Italy/Uruguay in Manaus, Sao Paulo and Natal, respectively. I left Porto de Galinhas with flip flops, shorts, a USA jersey, a sweatshirt, USA sunglasses and my tickets to the games, nothing more. My plan was to wake up at 4am, get to the Recife airport by 5 at the latest, then fly to Brasilia, then onto Manaus. But I almost didn’t make it…

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Part 4 – Porto de Galinhas for USA Germany and Greece Costa Rica


After recuperating in Porto de Galinhas on the 25th, it was game day again. USA. Germany. It had been raining off and on on the 25th, but that night, the skies opened up with a torrential, tropical downpour. We called it an early night so we could leave early the next morning for the 1pm game, 70km away in Recife. We left Porto de Galinhas in a torrential downpour at 9am…

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Part 5 – Recife-Salvador for USA Belgium and Netherlands Costa Rica


After watching Costa Rica advance to the quarterfinals, we set out to the south, aiming for Salvador, about 750km away. Every Brazilian we’d told we were driving south to Salvador looked at us like we were crazy and tried to convince us to change our plans. They said the road was terrible, there were frequent robberies, potential kidnappings, random objects in the road to get you to slow down so that people could rob you, and that many of the police were so corrupt that you weren’t even supposed to stop for the police if they tried to stop you…

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Chronicle of Two World Cup Qualifiers

World Cup qualifiers are special matches. In South America, there are only 16 meaningful matches over four years to decide which 5 soccer mad countries make it to the World Cup. In North America, there are only 10.

Each game is a grinder. The pressure is high. Any screw up can mean dropped points and the potential to miss the World Cup. In most countries outside of the US, the entire country stops for each match. On match day, Chileans gather round their tvs to watch the game, accompanied by friends and family, piscola, beer and sometimes day long asados. The national mood rides on the result: a win national ecstasy, a loss, national depression, followed by assigning blame and national soul searching.

Last week, Chile sat in 6th place, on the outside looking in after 9 matches. On Tuesday they lost a hard fought away game to bottom feeder Peru 1-0 where they should have drawn and the entire country went into depression.

Next up was Uruguay, probably the best per capita soccer team in the world and a team Chile hadn’t beaten in something like 25 years. At 3.8m people, Uruguay are the reigning South American champs and took 4th place in the last World Cup. Chile needed a home win or else they would be in deep trouble and were at risk to miss the first South American World Cup since Argentina ’78.

My friends Mike (visiting from the US), David, Pepe and I got tickets to go to the match. It was my first South American World Cup Qualifier, though I’ve been to US qualifiers and World Cup games in Germany and South Africa. We met up in my apartment to have a few beers, then took a taxi to Chile’s Estadio Nacional. We got there just in time to hear the national anthems.

Estadio Nacional, Chile/Uruguay
Estadio Nacional, Chile/Uruguay

Our tickets were for a general admission section in the corner and it was really full, but we ended up with seats low down, but still with a good view. The crowd was electric, willing Chile to score. Chile obliged in the 11th minute, scoring right in front of us. The crowd went nuts. Chileans really believe they could win. The crowd was on Uruguay’s striker Luis Suarez the entire game, especially after he punched a Chilean defender in the face and got away with it.

Uruguay pushed back from the start of the second half and Chilean fans were suffering badly. Fans cursed players and screamed abuse at Uruguayan players and refs, while singing songs to support the team. Our section had a significant number of families attending together. Fathers attending with their young daughters all screamed as if they were alone with their best friends. Chile scored again in the 77th minute and the party was on. Uruguay brought on Diego Forlan who had a few close chances, but it wasn’t enough. Chile had won. Everyone left the stadium happy. Everyone was together, something that doesn’t happen very often in Chile. Chile was back on track, moving up to a tie for 4th.

We walked a bit, then caught a cab to watch the US take on Mexico in Mexico City, a place the US has only won once in 75 years. We watched surrounded by dejected Mexican fans as the US got its second away point in Mexico in World Cup qualifying and solidifying their road to the world cup. Although the US still doesn’t have the passion for soccer that much of the world does, the vocal US crowd in Denver in a driving snow storm for the victory over Costa Rica and the over 7m tv viewers for USA/Mexico shows that soccer is growing and gaining popularity. At 60% of a typical monday night football game, that’s huge progress.  If you get a chance to see a world cup qualifier even if you’re not a big fan, take it.

Combining South and North American World Cup Qualifying Groups

I’m have to preface this post by saying that I know this will never ever happen.  But I can dream.

I’ve been sitting here in South America watching the start of another long world cup qualifying campaign and I’m completely jealous.  The games have passion, everyone’s watching and the teams are fielding their best players.  I compare it to the US/Mexico qualifying groups and just shake my head.  Like I said, this will never happen, but roll with me for a minute:

I would absolutely love to see North and South America merge their World Cup qualifying groups to create one large super group. Concacaf, which is made up of USA, Mexico, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean, currently gets 3.5 spots in the World Cup: 3 automatic bids, plus the 4th place team plays Oceania’s champion in a playoff.  The US and Mexico always make it and the qualifiers are completely boring.  Unless something crazy happens, Mexico and the US qualify fairly early on and don’t really have that hard of a road into the World Cup.

Our group doesn’t provide a good test to prepare us for the World Cup and doesn’t make our team better.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that the US is pretty much a lock for the World Cup every four years, but I’d rather exchange our quasi-automatic birth for great qualifying trips to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and the rest of South America.  I think the US would still be very likely to make the World Cup each time, but we’d be way better prepared when facing tough competition in international tournaments.  I think the US has about a 95% chance of making the World Cup in its current group and we’d have about an 85% chance if we combined into one group.

Currently Concacaf gets 3.5 spots and Conmebol, South America’s federation, gets 4.5.  I propose that North and South America combine to get 8 guaranteed spots, but teams 8 and 9 would have a one game playoff to see who makes the World Cup.  There are 10 teams in South America and 35 in Concacaf.  I would take the top 14 teams in Concacaf and create a 24 team group, with four groups of six.  Eight of the 24 would make the World Cup.

South American teams would benefit because they would likely soak up 1-2 extra World Cup spots at the expense of teams like Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala.  They would also expand their markets into Mexico and the US, likely earning more money and more exposure in foreign markets.

I think Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay and the US would likely make the World Cup pretty much every time.  The other two spots would come down to a fight between Paraguay, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras.  South America would get an extra 1-2 spots in the World Cup and Mexico and the US would have a harder road.

Like I said, I know this will never happen, but it is fun to dream.  At the very least, a combined tournament between Concacaf and Conmebol to compete with the European Championships in off years from Copa America and the Gold Cup would be a welcome addition the world of soccer.