Tag: soccer

World Cup Brazil 2014: Part 5 – Recife to Salvador for USA Belgium and Netherlands Costa Rica

Note: This is part three of a series about my world cup trip. Read part one here about Natal and USA/Ghana, part two about Porto de Galinhas and Costa Rica Italy here, part three about Manaus, Sao Paulo, Natal and USA/Portugal, Chile/Netherlands and Uruguay/Italy, part four about Recife and USA/Germany and Costa Rica/Greece, or the entire series here.

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.  I assumed this was another case of south americans exaggerating the danger, but I looked online on trip advisor and found dozens of stories of bad roads and dangerous conditions.

We needed to get to Salvador for the US game three days later and we wanted to see the beautiful Brazilian coast line, so we decided to go. Because the Costa Rica game went to extra time and penalties and we got stuck in traffic, we ended up leaving Recife after dark. We stopped at a truck stop for a traditional meal of grilled meat, farofa, beans, rice and fruit juice and planned our route south. I so wish I had a russian style dashboard cam for this drive, as it was one of the craziest of my life.

Within 20 miles of leaving Recife, the road went from decent highway to a two lane road with no shoulder, car eating pot holes and heavy truck traffic. This route connects Brazil’s third and fifth largest city, but at least half of it is worse than anything I’ve ever driven on, even in South Africa. Over the next few hours we avoided: a road kill horse that was blocking our lane, a fully intact truck tire in the middle of the road and a two and a half foot long piece of metal that would have popped our tires.

After avoiding pot hole after pot hole in the now dense fog, we saw red flashing lights off in the distance. We had been told not to stop for police, so we weren’t sure what we were going to do when we came to the flashing lights. As we got closer, we saw that the police were blocking the road. What to do? We slowed down and got closer and we saw the entire road sparkling in our headlights. And then we saw it. A jackknifed semi truck blocking 80% of the road that had spilled its entire contents across the road: 10,000+ now shattered glass beer bottles. The police had used shovels to clear two tire paths for cars to pass and were trying to direct traffic.

We finally cleared the area and pulled into Maceió, which we later learned is the most violent city in Brazil. As I was pulling into the city, I read an article that said Maceió was mostly lawless, people solved problems with knives and that the police could be bought off for even the biggest of crimes. It was late, I was tired and we weren’t paying too much attention as we sped into the city, keeping up with traffic going 110km per hour, blasting through red lights, in 50km zones.

As we got closer to our hotel, I tried to turn left and had to take evasive action to avoid an oncoming car, as I’d turned down a one way street. That oncoming car was a police car with its lights on. I figured we were screwed and he’d stop us and maybe demand a bribe. But he just kept on going and didn’t pay us a second thought. I can’t think of many other places in the world where you turn the wrong way down a one way street, almost crash head on into a police car and don’t get pulled over. The entire drive reiterated why Brazilians were mad about the world cup. Basic infrastructure connecting the 3rd and 5th biggest city just didn’t work. And was outright dangerous.

Praia Francesa
Praia Francesa

The next day we went to Praia Francesa, a small beach town about 30 minutes south of Maciaó. It was absolutely beautiful and really relaxing after the long, harrowing drive the night before. Besides for the natural beauty, the first thing I noticed was the amount of people with knife wounds. On their faces. On their chests.  On their legs. I looked it up later and found articles saying that people solved their problems with knives instead of fists, guns or calling the police. And it showed. I bet we saw 10+ people that afternoon with some sort of knife scar, including our waiter who had a mouth to ear scar.


After spending the day at the beach, we headed south again, with the intention of getting to a small town about an hour from Salvador. We missed our turn off and by about 1030pm, ended up in Conte, a tiny town about 120km from Salvador. We were some of the only tourists in town and stayed in a beautiful hotel for about $50 for the night. We ate dinner at a small restaurant where locals were drinking beer and sampled the local food.

Fish, shrimp stew
Fish, shrimp stew

Salvador and its region has some of the most interesting food in Brazil. It’s the center of afro-brazilian culture and you can see the influences in everything, but most of all the food. There are dishes that are very similar to southern food in the US, including Acarajé, which is very similar to hush puppies, boiled peanuts and stewed chicken with spices. Acarajé, one of my favorites and a ubiquitous street food, is made of smashed up black eyed peas and then covered with okra, boiled shrimp, greens and sauce.

Source: http://santomenino.blogspot.com/2011/12/acaraje.html
Acarajé.                                         Source: http://santomenino.blogspot.com/2011/12/acaraje.html

There’s also fish and seafood stew cooked with spices, served with the stew sauce thickened by manioc flour. I had this stew in Salvador and had to convince the waiter to let me order it, as he thought the shrimp and fish stew, along with the manioc would be too much for my gringo digestive system. I’m glad I was able to convince him, as it was by far my favorite dish I tried in Brazil.

Acai is the hidden gem of Brazilian snacks. I’d had acai juice before and didn’t really like it, but the frozen acai with bananas, granola and honey. I had it for breakfast, in hot weather on the beach and after hangovers. An incredible treat that I wish we had either in Chile or in the US.

In Conte, I sampled a manioc and chicken stew that had been cooked for 4+ hours in a spicy broth, while my friend had carne de sol, the most popular meat dish in the region. We also ate cheese grilled over open coals, another ubiquitous street food in the region. It’s really easy to always order grilled meat when you’re in Brazil, but if you go off the beaten path a bit, you can find really interesting, flavorful dishes.


We got up early the next morning, ate Brazilian fruit for breakfast, and then headed south toward Salvador and the USA Belgium game. We stopped for a coconut water halfway to Salvador, then drove to the mall near where we would be staying to take the shuttle to the game.



Lighthouse Barra, Salvador
Light house Barra, Salvador

Salvador was my favorite city I visited this trip and I would go back again. It’s a city that made sense to host world cup games. The historic Arena Fonte Nova is located downtown, within walking distance from Pelorinho, Salvador’s historic center, the beach and areas with bars. Located between a major street, a favela and a beautiful lake, the redone stadium is beautiful from the outside and had good sight lines from inside. We bought beers outside the stadium from entrepreneurial Brazilians and got into the stadium.

coconut water
coconut water

I had tickets from the US supporters club and was expecting to be in an all US section as I had been in the previous games, but FIFA screwed it up and I was in a mixed section with Belgians, US fans and Brazilians. I’d stood and cheered the entire first three games with thousands of other US fans, but this time I had to sit as Belgium dominated the first half. The US were lucky to be tied at halftime, but were still in the game.

Arena Fonte Nova
Arena Fonte Nova

My friend and I decided to move seat locations and stand with other US fans in another section, which improved the atmosphere. Tim Howard stood on his head the entire game, turning in the best goalkeeping game I’ve ever seen. Belgium really should have scored two or three times in regulation, but Howard kept them out. In the last seconds of the game, the US missed it’s chance win the game, missing a wide open chance from about six yards out.


Belgium finally broke through in extra time and scored twice, but the US fought back, scoring quickly and almost scoring again off a beautifully executed set piece. It would be have been nice to see the US play more attacking in the Belgium game, but it was a good end to a fun world cup run. I was surprised how anti-US the Brazilian crowd in Salvador was, chanting “USA go home,” “bye bye USA,” and whistling loudly to drown out our cheers whenever we got something started. Although the US advanced to the round of 16 again, just like 2010, it was a good world cup that showed US progress. Hopefully Klinsmann learns from this world cup and puts in a good showing for Copa America 2016 in the US.

The next day was a public holiday, for Bahia independence day. Salvador de Bahia, founded in 1500, was the first settlement by the Portuguese and just oozes history. We drove to Pelorinho, the old city, which gets its name from the stockades where the Portuguese originally hung and tortured slaves and locals. We watched the celebratory parade with full brass marching bands and dancers, had a beer and enjoyed the old architecture. Everyone was incredibly nice, open and willing to talk to us. This was true everywhere in Brazil, but especially true in Salvador.


We spent the next day in Barra, one of Salvador’s many beaches, enjoying the sun, caipirinhas and warm water. Barra is one of the only beaches in Brazil where you can see the sunset, which was absolutely beautiful. The Brazilians on the beach stood up and cheered as the sun went down, thanking it for making the day a great one. We decided to watch Brazil vs. Colombia in Pelorinho, the old section of town. People piled out of their homes to set up chairs in the streets and watch the game on tvs perched from windows and porches. When Brazilian won, this was the reaction:

I went to one last game, the Netherlands vs. Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, which was a tight, exciting and chance filled game. The entire crowd were behind the Costa Ricans, willing them to win. Both teams had great chances, but neither could convert. The Dutch manager substituted goal keepers in the last minute of extra time and his gamble paid off. Tim Krul, the substitute, taunted, psyched out and disrupted the Costa Ricans and then saved two of their shots, winning the game for the Dutch and sending them through. The atmosphere was electric, with the Brazilians singing anti-Argentina songs throughout the entire match at full volume. Argentines sang right back.


By the end of my three week trip, I was ready to sleep in my own bed and stop traveling, but I was sad to leave sunny, warm Salvador for cold, rainy Santiago. It was an amazing trip through northern Brazil and I’d love to go back to explore more of Salvador and the surrounding area, along with southern brazil. Although it’s still four years away, I can’t wait for the world cup in 2018, even if it is in Russia.

Last sunset in Brazil
Flying back over the andes
Flying back over the Andes

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.

Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story

Jay DeMerit grew up in Green Bay, about two hours north of me.  He was a high school star at Bay Port and went to University of Illinois Chicago to play soccer.

After he graduated, MLS didn’t want him, so he left the US with $1800 in his pocket and moved to England, joining a 9th division team, basically a sunday beer league.

After a year, with no money left, he got a trial with a 7th division team.  Watford’s manager, then in the 2nd division, was in attendance to scout two other players, but really liked DeMerit and gave him a 2 week trial.

After the two week trial, he signed a one year deal and played for Watford all season.   He scored the winning goal at Wembly that promoted Watford to the premiership, earning him legendary status with Watford’s fans.

He was a starter in the Premiership, playing with Watford for 6 seasons, scoring 9 goals as a central defender.  He made the US National Team in 2007 and led the US to a 2-0 win against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup.  He was named to the World Cup 2010 roster and started all four matches in South Africa.  Now there’s a movie about him coming out in November.

DeMerit’s story in unreal.  It shows that determination plus talent equals success.  He wanted something so bad that he was willing to go broke for it, move to another continent and devote his time to it to make sure it was a success.

Be like Jay DeMerit.  If you have a dream, go for it, work hard and give it your very best effort. Don’t make excuses.  He could have easily said “im from a tiny town in the US, Major League Soccer doesn’t want me, im running out of money” but he didn’t.   He didn’t whine, he just was determined to get better each day and found success beyond his wildest dreams.

Give it your best effort.  If it doesnt work, its better to have lived and tried than to have given up without a fight.

DeMerit’s goal to take Watford to the Premiership

What I’ve Learned In 12 Years of Reffing Soccer

I’ve been reffing soccer since I was 12. I grew up playing soccer and wanted some extra spending money as a kid, so it was a natural fit. Over the past 12 years, I’ve learned a ton about myself and human nature in general.  I think some of the lessons I learned growing up as a referee led me be independent and to start my own business.  I even used some of my reffing money to finance my first business.  As I’ve been involved in entrepreneurship, I’ve found that reffing has taught me a ton about business, psychology and life in general.  Here’s a few:

1. The loudest people usually know the least

The people who yell/complain the most, usually know the least.  The people who are mostly silent or pick their spots to speak up usually know their stuff.  Parents, coaches, players.  People complaining about small issues usually don’t know anything and it’s best to ignore them. They just want attention.

2. You have to work hard and earn people’s respect

If you walk around slowly or don’t move outside of the center circle, people will think you’re lazy and will take every opportunity to criticize you if you’re not giving full effort. People are more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re working hard, even if you make a mistake.

3. Bullies like to pick on people they don’t think will fight back

I’ve seen coaches and fans brutally abuse 12-14 year old female referees because they know that the kid isn’t going to respond.  Which brings me to my next lesson:

4. Stand up for yourself and others

I threw out a 40 year old coach in my first game when I was 12.  He cussed me out even though I got the foul correct because he believed that the other 9 year old had tried to injure his player.  If you see someone bullying someone else, say something.  Even if you don’t get them to stop, the other person will appreciate it.

5. People live vicariously through others and it’s not a good thing

The worst parents to deal with are those who are living through their kids.  They are horrible to referees, but even worse to their kids.  Thankfully, my Dad never pulled some of the crap I see every season.

6. If you show people respect, they will likely respect you back.  If people won’t respect you back, don’t listen to them and move on.

If you start a relationship by respecting the other person, they’ll likely respect you back.  People deserve your respect from the start.  They don’t have to “earn your respect.”  But if you treat someone with respect and they don’t give it back, don’t listen and move on.  They’re not worth your time.

7. Be aware of politics

Believe it or not, there’s a ton of politics in the referee world, all the way up to the world cup.  Make sure you know the politics of any industry you’re in.  If you don’t like playing the politics game, it’s ok.  Just do what you enjoy.  Try not to bring politics into your own organizations and life, though.

8. Prepare and research for what you are about to do

The best referees that I know research the teams, history, players and coaches they are about to ref.  They know who plays club together, top goal scorers, enforcers.  It makes the job much easier.  Same with just about all aspects of life.

9. Take Responsibility

Show up on time, dress in a uniform and take responsibility for your calls.  You cant hide from players/coaches/fans when you’re the only one with the whistle.  Own up to your mistakes and people will respect you.  If you screw up, tell people you screwed up.  They will respect you for it in the end.

10. Be consistent. Be fair. Don’t call ticky tack, crazy calls that nobody understands.

Just like in life, be consistent and fair.  Don’t try to show people how smart you are.  Be fair and don’t be a dick.

11. Don’t be afraid to do what’s right, even if it’s hard.

It’s hard to disallow a goal in the 89th minute for a handball that only you saw.  Or an offside call that is really close.  You have to do what’s right, no matter what.  Even if it’s painful short term.  You have to live with yourself and you’ll feel better if you do the right thing, even if it’s hard.

Bonus time.  Here’s 10 things I’ve seen on the soccer field in the last 12 years:

1.  My first game.  Coach calls 12 year old me a “fucking idiot.”  I kick him out.  In my third game, I kick another coach out for saying similar things and he sits menacingly on his car trunk watching from the parking lot.

2. High School Game – Red player slide tackles blue player from behind.  I call the foul and give a red card to the red player.  Blue player’s teammate jumps up and jumps on red player’s back, grabs his hair and smashes his face into the ground repeatedly.

3. 14 year old kid tells 19 year old me “I’m going to find out where you live and kill you.”  I give him a red card, laugh and say “what are you going to do, do a bike by?”  Parents tell me I shouldn’t have given him a red card because he has “emotional issues.”

4. Coach is a state cup game attempts to punch 18 year old me in the face after I throw him out for swearing at me repeatedly.  He says “If you’re man enough to throw me out, you’re going to have to be man enough to make me” and has to be restrained by field marshals.

5. Parent is unhappy that his son has been red carded for saying that 21 year old me is “a fucking terrible idiot.”  Parent goes Bobby Knight and throws a chair onto the field, in my direction.  He’s ejected too.

6. U10 game.  Goal keeper makes a great save with his stomach and gets the wind knocked out of him.  Father gets really mad and announces to the parents sideline that he’s going to make “his little pussy” get back in the game.  I tossed him and he got a 3 game suspension.

7. Parent of 16 year old female select player screams at her daughter the entire game.  His kid is the best player on the team, but he thinks she can do better.  It gets so bad that the girl breaks down crying and screams at him that she wants to quit.  She had scored 2 goals and her team was winning.

8. Parents follow me to my car and attempt to not allow me to leave.  I’m 17 and it’s a u15 game.  They were mad that I called the game because of lightning while their team was losing.

9. U13 game.  Manager comes over to me to pay me before the game.  He looks me in the eye and says really slowly “This is a really important game, make sure you call it fair” as he’s handing me my pay envelope.  I didn’t think anything of it.  After the game, there’s an extra $40 in the envelope.  Bribing the ref in a u13 game?  Seriously?

10. Very clean high school girls game.  60 minutes in, a red player comes in screaming and makes a horrible slide tackle on a blue player.  I give her a red card and ask one of the other girls what that was all about.  They tell me that blue player had stolen red player’s boyfriend earlier that summer.

I probably have another 50 stories I could share, but I’ll leave those for another post.

On a serious note, 90% of referees quit in their first year.  The pay is great, but most people can’t take the abuse from parents and coaches.  There’s no other job where adults think it’s ok to scream and swear at 12-18 year olds and drive them to tears.  I would love to go to some accountant, attorney, construction worker, sales exec’s office and scream at him whenever I think he’s made a mistake, just so they can see what it’s like.  I’ve actually told that to parents as I’ve ejected them.  It doesn’t usually make an impression.