I couldn’t help but feel like this leg of the adventure was a wasted opportunity, and a trip I would happily have skipped had I not known I was returning to Rio later in the tournament. It was just going to be a quick day trip. Sat on an early morning flight to BH, it was obviously full of England fans who had booked months in advance. Now, England fans aren’t always the quietest and they are known to like a drink, regardless of how early the flight. And when they get it right and keep it all within limits there is no better place to be. I had visions of this pre-match flight with 100 or so people drinking and singing from start to finish, a truly unique flight that we would never forget. Buuutt, we were simply going to watch two teams with nothing to play for and a side who, at this moment in time, were hard to be too proud of. So instead, we sat in near silence on a truly forgettable flight.
On arrival it was a beautiful modern stadium, one of the many newly refurbished for the tournament. Along with the new builds, this cost billions of reais in taxpayer money, which had the majority of the population in uproar. Understandably so, as there were many issues that were besetting the country which remained unresolved, and where these resources would have been much better spent for the good of the people of Brazil. This had led to lengthy protest before the World Cup, and had threatened to cause major disruption and security risks throughout the tournament, although these never came to light.
One concern surrounding this game was a rumour that Argentina fans may cross the border via road and attend the game to cause some trouble with the English fans. Approaching the stadium we were reassured that whatever intentions anyone came to the stadium with there would be no trouble. The amount of security was truly astounding, armed police and soldiers, even army tanks were lining the street. One thing for sure was that no one was going to be attempting anything untoward that afternoon.
Once inside we heard the truly uninspiring team line-ups, England were already eliminated and chose to field a reserve team, Costa Rica were already qualified and also chose to field a reserve team. This lead to one of the greatest signs of all time held up in a stadium:
‘Flights to Rio – £1,200
Enjoying the ambience – £2,000
Accommodation – £2,000
Arriving after elimination – Priceless’
In true English style, the best way to get over something is to laugh at yourself. At least Jack and I had experienced ‘that moment’ – these poor guys had turned up to watch a reserve team game.
After a predictably dour affair, the score ended 0-0. The only highlight for me was a Costa Rica fan requesting to swap shirts at the end which made perfect sense for me as I had tickets to watch the group winners in the next three stages. Not knowing the city at all we just headed to the fan zone in the centre, where we would watch the matches to find out Costa Rica’s opponents and then grab some food before catching the bus back to Rio.
A few weeks earlier, an old school friend had messaged me to say he lived in Belo Horizonte. Sadly we didn’t arrange to meet up due to the short time, my lack of knowledge of the city and our plans. Can’t win ‘em all. Stood in this huge hall at the fan zone, we watched as the second half of the final games in Group C kicked off. Ivory Coast had a whole host of Premier League footballers in their golden generation; Colombia were playing some of the best football with their new superstar James Rodriguez bursting onto the scene; Japan had some of the most entertaining fans and an enjoyable side to watch; and Greece, the country in the midst of an economic crisis whose football team were notorious for winning games without ever having a single player worth watching. They were masters of defending a narrow lead, as shown by their miraculous victory at Euro 2004. The way the football had gone so far, there was only ever going to be one outcome. And as Georgios Samaras tucked away a last minute penalty against Ivory Coast, our fate was sealed. Head in hands…
‘Noooooo, anyone but fucking Greece!’
Time for a beer to digest the wonderful news. Whilst waiting for Jack outside the toilet I saw HIM! There he was! In a city of 1.4 million people, there he was, my old buddy Paddy Chester from school. I couldn’t believe it, bloody brilliant. He came over and after 10 years without seeing each other, a simple handshake and hello sufficed. Paddy’s immediate reaction was concern: ‘Are you okay mate?’. Understandable reaction as by this point I had been in Brazil 18 days, and I’d be lying if I said there was a day when either a caipirinha or a Brahma hadn’t passed my lips. Since ‘that moment’ in Sao Paulo and the minute of screaming that followed, I’d had a terrible sore throat. The only way to talk without pain was to press two fingers against my throat; to sound like I’d just had a throat operation and a voice box installed was a small price to pay in my eyes.
Patrick – beautifully pronounced as Patreeky in the Brazilian accent – took us to join his friends for dinner. Lovely but all too short lived, we were soon being dropped off at the bus station by his typically welcoming Brazilian mates. It was at this point Paddy said: ‘Forget Rio at the end of the tournament, it’s just full of tourists. Come and stay at my place at the end of the tournament and I’ll show you the real Brazil.’ Realising a potentially brilliant experience was available, to be shown such a beautiful country by someone who was both an old friend and a local guide, I was genuinely considering taking up the offer.
Now knowing our next match and destination, it was one last night in Rio before flying to the north east coast of Brazil and Recife.