As stated in my bio, the 18 months since January 2013 were by far and away the most difficult I had faced or would ever face. I needed something fresh, something to reinvigorate my life, something exciting to get me out of bed in the morning, a raison d’etre. That something was ‘A Copa do Mundo’ – the World Cup in Brazil!
The ultimate celebration of football in one of the most exotic, lively and desirable places to visit in the world. Us Brits dreamed of the beaches, sunshine, dancing, fashion and above all – the Beautiful Game. If this couldn’t inspire me then nothing could. Football was born in England, but it lives in Brazil.
I spent months planning, learning some basic Portuguese, searching for people to join me or to meet out there, and most importantly of all, completing the Panini World Cup sticker album. With tickets to see all England games up to the semi-final safely tucked away in my bag, it was time to venture on my first ever solo trip.
After a quick stopover in Sao Paulo, it was straight up to Amazonia. England drew Italy to play in the ‘place to avoid’, as dubbed by our heroic England manager, Roy Hodgson. Whilst not so convenient for the England players to play in stifling humidity, it did give me the perfect opportunity to arrive a week early and get myself on a little Amazon tour.
Obviously a little nervous being my first adventure alone, I met my fellow jungle enthusiasts early on for the 4 hour drive into the rainforest. It didn’t take long to settle in; two pals from London and a couple more legends from Finland, and before you know it I was right where I belonged, having passionate debates of who would win the World Cup and why.
‘I can’t see past Spain, they’re just too good.’
‘Has to be Brazil, no one from Europe has ever won over here.’
‘England are shite, but you just never know, time for someone to make a name for themselves.’
After 4 days in the jungle, trekking, drinking beers in a high tower, sunrises on the river, failed attempts at fishing and a bit of manhandling of animals thrown in there, it was time for the footy. Back to Manaus, where World Cup fever had been steadily growing in anticipation of the opening game, Brazil vs Croatia. We made our way over to the fan zone, slightly nervous on a public bus for the first time, with minimal Portuguese and little idea of where to get off except for a few reassuring nods and smiles from the locals wearing the ‘Canarinho’.
Arriving safely to massive crowds, it didn’t take long to realise we were the only white people around, not an experience I was used to but all the same very interesting. Likewise they were very interested in us, people asking for photos just because of the colour of our skin, not something I can say had happened before. We later found out people had come from 200km away – deep in the jungle – for this day, so it’s fair to say we were like aliens to some of them.
At the end of an awe-inspiring rendition of what quickly became one of my favourite national anthems, the referee got the ball rolling and we were all set for the greatest show on earth to begin. Despite some early jitters and a Marcelo own goal, the time came for Neymar, the man with the weight of a nation’s expectation on his shoulders, and not such a forgiving nation at that. A man who had come through the ranks at Santos, the same club as Pele, he had been used to the pressure and expectation since childhood. And as all great players do, he stepped up when it mattered and scored two goals including a high-pressure penalty to hand Brazil a 3-1 victory and us the perfect platform to enjoy this smiling nation.
The day before the big Italy game, I was sat in my hostel watching many people’s favourites Spain get demolished 5-1 by a Van Persie-inspired Netherlands. It was from this point I stopped bothering making predictions – football will always surprise you. Starting to feel more at home with foreigners, none of whom I had known for more than a few days, I heard from behind in the most Mancunian voice imaginable:
‘Who wants a game? England vs the Rest of The World.’
The moment I’d been waiting for. After an injury earlier in the year, I made sure that I was fit for when this moment came. We gathered a few players and wandered down to the sewage-filled river, next to which there was a typical football cage. With the addition of a few local kids, the game got going.
These are the moments I’d dreamed about, playing footy with a random mix of people and wondering if the little 12-year-old Brazilian boy who just nutmegged you would go on to represent the Selecao one day. The presence of Geordie John in his McEwans Lager Rangers shirt and skin-tight shorts, screaming instructions at the dumbfounded kids was not part of the original dream, but it’s quirks like this that make it all the more special.
Today is our day!
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of game day, whether playing or watching – it’s just bloody brilliant. The moment was upon us. England vs Italy in the World Cup in Brazil, this is what it’s all about. Meet up and straight to the pub, no other option. Several beers and shots later we were en route to the ground…
‘Roy Hodgson, Roy Hodgson, Roy Hodgson, is taking us to Rio, to Rio, to Rio, oh oh oh ohhhhhhhhhh ohhhhhhhhhhh!’
The mood is starting to build, but still not much sign of Italian fans. ‘This will be great, atmosphere will be with England, it’ll be tough conditions for Italians too.’ I was starting to feel an unjustified confidence until finally the game kicked off. At this point it appeared that the huge number of locals had all pledged their allegiance to Italy…ahhh those Roy Hodgson comments have come back to haunt us all.
Five minutes into the second half, a goal from either side left the game poised nicely at 1-1. Time for a beer. Returning from the Budweiser stand walking up the stairs, the stadium erupts and just like when half listening to football on the radio and anxiously waiting to hear which team scored, I looked around to see many happy Brazilians and a few glum faces clad in the St Georges Cross. Bastard!! Mario Balotelli had decided it was one of his good days and he’d done enough to score the winner. England were again outclassed by the imperious Andrea Pirlo, and couldn’t muster a recovery.
Oh well, not the start we hoped for but one bright spark was the common question: ‘Who was that number 19, he looked pretty special?’ That would be Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling. Back into town to enjoy the last night in the ‘one pub’ city centre and then off to see what Uruguay and the largest city in South America had to offer us.