Refreshingly for a night bus I managed to sleep for the majority of the eight hours from Sao Paulo. Following the 5-minute walk from the station in a rather run down industrial area I was pleasantly surprised to find the hotel (£40) had just about as nice a rooftop terrace as I could hope for.
Still labouring from the journey, we watched Brasil x Peru in the comfort of the hotel. An early goal from Casemiro (£0.63) after a goalkeeping nightmare set the tone for the game and Brazil never looked back. A comfortable win was just what the Doctor ordered after an uninspiring display against Venezuela. Despite a last-minute penalty miss denying Gabriel Jesus (£2.04) his first Copa America goal, the 5-0 win left Brazil clear at the top of Group A going through with Venezuela but leaving Peru in third awaiting other results to discover their fate.
The next day involved ticking off a couple of tourist attractions. We randomly went for the National History Museum (£2) due to its proximity, a worthwhile little visit as it’s always nice to know some interesting facts about the country you visit.
Next, off to the slightly busier Escadaria Selaron, a set of stairs in the heart of Lapa famed for its colourful tiles depicting many places and themes from across the world. A beautiful spot with a vibrant buzz and locals playing live music, it also appears that these days this comes with a queue of people at the bottom awaiting their Instagram picture as well.
Back to the football and it was time for the culmination of Group B, a single Gustavo Cuellar (£0.30) goal meant a clean sweep for Colombia as they progressed without conceding a goal. This result meant Argentina required the win against Qatar to progress in second to set up a Quarter Final tie against Venezuela.
For this game we took up a lovely little spot on Copacabana where we had just moved to an even more impressive hotel with stunning views overlooking the beach, again incredible value considering how much you would pay for a Travelodge in Manchester with views of a car park.
Surrounded by mainly Chile fans at the Quiosque, we were two of the only ones supporting Argentina. Purely for selfish reasons as our QF game would involve either Argentina or Paraguay, Messi (£4.88) certainly got my vote over Miguel Almiron (£1.09). It took just 4 minutes for the 21-year-old Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez (£1.23) to break the deadlock. From this point on Qatar rarely threatened as Argentina wasted several clear-cut chances but it was left to Sergio Aguero (£1.49) to put the game beyond doubt in the 82nd minute and send Argentina through to the next round.
Despite my pasty skin it was only right that I spent one day on the beach, with the hotel having their own private space it would be rude not to. Copacabana was the perfect spot to enjoy a few Caipirinhas and briefly leave the safety of the umbrellas for a dip in the lively Atlantic Ocean. By late afternoon it felt safe enough to sit in the sun and on this rare occasion I actually enjoyed my intake of Vitamin D before heading to the evenings game.
Chile x Uruguay was next up on the menu and a pleasure to return to one of the great temples of football – The Maracana. It goes without saying that the stadium wasn’t full to capacity but we were in a section buzzing with energy, there was barely a seat to spare but we spotted a couple next to some sky blue shirts amongst the sea of red and took our seats.
From the moment the game kicked off there was so much passion in the atmosphere, love for their own team and hatred for the opposition filled the stands. By far the most intense atmosphere yet despite both teams having already qualified, however it wasn’t until later I realised that the winner of this game would basically avoid a confrontation with Colombia in the Quarter Final.
The game was intense and fast paced from the off, both teams looking for the victory and plenty of tough tackling as you would expect from these two nations. Challenges on the halfway line simply leading to throw-ins were met with great cheers from the crowd such was the intensity in the stadium. Fans in each other’s faces, one set of fans singing leading to the other trying to outdo them.
Overall Chile had slightly edged things in shot count and possession but with the ruthless partnership of Luis Suarez (£0.74) – who instinctively claimed handball when the keeper saved his shot – and Edinson Cavani (£0.69) leading the line there was always going to be a danger for Chile. This came to light when the Paris St-Germain striker turned home a Jonathan Rodriguez cross to the delight of the travelling Celeste fans. The one goal was enough to hold off Chile and progress as group winners, leaving them with the much-preferred tie against Peru in Salvador.
As Ecuador drew with Japan in the nights other game it brought the group stages to a close. All Quarter Finals had clear favourites except the much-fancied Colombia who would take on Chile.
Brazil x Paraguay
Argentina x Venezuela
Colombia x Chile
Uruguay x Peru
As always, the end of the knockout stages gives a couple of days break from the football. We took this opportunity to get away from the big city and out into the beautiful countryside just outside Petropolis. A picturesque area up in the mountains with stunning views of the tranquil nature, this was the perfect place to wind down for a short time. And of course, it was just a co-incidence they happened to have a German beer festival on at the same time.
Suitably refreshed it was back on the bus for the 2 hour ride to Rio in time to catch up with my buddy Fernando who I had the pleasure of meeting in Budapest some 5 years earlier. We gathered to watch Brazil x Paraguay, an ominous fixture as Paraguay had twice recently knocked Brazil out on Penalties in 2011 and 2015. As well as the obvious reasons for cheering a Brazilian victory this was all the more important for us as we had a ticket to the Semi-Final of the winner. Having never watched a host nation live in my previous 3 major tournaments, this was a prospect I was incredibly excited for.
A one sided game from the start it was Brazil piling on the pressure with a total of 26 shots and 70% possession. However, it wasn’t until the 58th minute when the real drama started, Roberto Firmino (£1.42) was bought down on the edge of the area and a penalty and yellow card were awarded. After a few games with little or no VAR intervention it was back with interest as the referee overturned the decision and awarded a Free-Kick, this decision interestingly now meant that despite the genuine attempt for the ball it was to be a red card for West Ham defender Fabian Balbuena (£0.26). As the ensuing Free-kick flew wide it was Brazil who would be ruing the overturned VAR.
Despite the intense pressure and numerous attempts at goal the game ended goalless and to my surprise went straight to penalties, a recent tradition in the Copa America for Quarter and Semi Finals. Déjà vu for the Brazilians, was history about to repeat itself for the third time in 4 Copas or were the demons to be banished?
First blood went to Brazil as Alisson (£0.78) saved brilliantly from Gustavo Gomez. The mood changed quickly when Firmino sent the keeper the wrong way only to put the ball wide of the post, his nightmare day of penalties continuing.
“So Jesus na causa” – “Only Jesus can save us now”
Things were poised evenly at 3-3 after four penalties mine and Brazil’s dreams were really on a knife edge but when Derlis Gonzalez placed his penalty wide it was left to the ever-confident Gabriel Jesus to step up to the mark and comfortably place the ball in the bottom corner and send Brazil through to the Semi Final.
With one half of our dream semi final set up it was time to see who they would be playing. Argentina had laboured to the Quarter Final and Venezuela had relied heavily on VAR interventions. Once again a pleasure to enter the Maracana and this time to witness the greatest player ever to kick a ball, quite fitting to watch him play with the iconinc Christ the Redeemer looking down upon him.
Having seen the way Chile and Uruguay lit up the stadium four days earlier I was expecting more of the same from the Argies. It didn’t come initially as there were very few Venezuelans in the crowd and the game kicked off in a relatively subdued atmosphere.
It only took 10 minutes for that man again Lautaro Martinez (£1.25-£1.35 during the game) to open the scoring with a beautiful Cruyff flick through the goalkeepers legs. Another positive from the young man who was becoming one of the stand out names of the tournament and was justifying the coaches choice to select him above Paulo Dybala (£2.71) and Mauro Icardi (£1.51) despite all three of them having frustrating seasons in Serie A for very different reasons.
The early goal raised the tempo from the Argentina supporters who could sense a comfortable victory on the cards. This understandably provoked a response from the Brazil fans and before we knew it, half of the stadium were chanting back;
“Mil gols, mil gols, mil gols, mil gols, mil gooools
So Pele, So Peleeeee,
Basically, Pele scored a thousand goals, only Pele. And Maradona takes drugs. A rather simple but effective and then the fun began. Argentinians responded with seven fingers in the air in reference to Brazil’s brutal defeat at the hands of Germany five years earlier. Next came “Pentacampeao” as the Brazilians pointed to the stars on the shirt. Just as we hoped, things were getting heated, you could see the passion in the individuals and this was only Venezuela. Imagine if it was actually Brazil x Argentina. Imagine.
Well no need to imagine any longer, as Giovani Lo Celso (£1.65) turned in a rebound late on the dream was real. Argentina fans set the stadium alight and they too had carried out their part of the deal. Next up Brazil x Argentina in Belo Horizonte. The scene of the famous 7-1 Semi Final defeat.
The two remaining semi finalists were yet to be decided and that evening Chile were continually frustrated by marginal VAR decisions in which their two cancelled goals were neither ‘clear’ nor ‘obvious’ mistakes from the referee and as such should have been allowed. Fortunately justice prevailed as Alexis Sanchez (£1.45) scored the final penalty in the shoot-out just as he had to take them to glory in the 2016 final.
Colombia became the first big team to fall but they were not to be the last in this round. By far the biggest upset of the tournament came as Peru held out for 90 minutes against Uruguay, leaving the dreaded penalty shoot-out for the 3rd of the four goal free Quarter Finals. First up was Luis Suarez (£0.76) who couldn’t beat the Peruvian keeper from 12 yards. Unfortunately for the one of the worlds most unpopular footballers his miss was followed by the rare feat of every other player converting their penalty and Peru made their way to the Semi Finals despite having only so far managed to put the ball in the mighty Bolivians net in normal time.
With the excitement brewing and a couple of days without football it was time for another breather and back on the night bus to the state of Minas Gerais and the beautiful town of Ouro Preto before the big one in Belo Horizonte.