WORDS: MATT MILLOWAY
The United States may have been playing many miles further north, but one American who failed in his quest for tickets to see the homeland in action took his chances in unfashionable Curitiba instead. During his stay he encountered six very different sets of supporters and witnessed the end of an era…
Morning arrived too early. I turned on my computer and logged onto FIFA’s website minutes before 6am.
The start of World Cup 2014’s second ticket phase was about to begin, otherwise known as the ‘pick your venue and pray for good teams’ phase. Already losing the lottery for United States team-specific tickets months before, the next shot at attending the world’s most important sporting event rested on my educated guess the city of Curitiba – praised for its urban parks and transit system – held the key to my summer.
Fifteen minutes after entering the online queue, a loud beep from my computer signaled a transition to the ticketing portal and I scanned the screen for a sign I could punch my ticket to Brazil.
Six months later upon arriving in Curitiba, everyone politely nodded, not really understanding my explanation for an American’s choice to fly into Sao Paulo and head south. Isn’t the United States playing in the north? Aren’t tickets available from other fans? Indeed, the team’s games were far north and a man even offered to sell two Ghana tickets on the flight down – at a cost of course – along with muttering under his breath about the travel difficulties. Yet failing to secure my first choice tickets and watching the United States get slammed with its famous 9,000-mile travel schedule, I slowly began to convince myself seeing a collision of cultures in one city was a worthy experience in its own right. It’s the World Cup, after all.
Settling into my host’s spare bedroom a day before the first match got underway, I only anticipated spending a few weeks watching soccer in person, at bars, and anywhere else offering pints of beer and HD televisions. Other expectations were nonexistent as I drifted off to sleep four blocks from the bright lights of Curitiba’s barely finished Arena de Baixada.
Matchday #1: The Tournament’s First Scoreless Draw
Nearing the gates at Curitiba’s stadium, Nigeria’s unmistakable green blotted the sea of yellow Brazil jerseys. A man wearing Victor Moses’ full Chelsea kit gleefully gave Nigerian flags to locals, convinced to root for the Super Eagles by sheer luck of the draw. Few Iran fans were in sight. The line moved quicker than expected and I was through the metal detectors and ticket line – one step closer to the start of my first World Cup match.
Unsure of what to expect before the games began, I was puzzled by the friendliness that supporters of both teams and locals alike showed one another, even as the beer flowed and personal space became cramped in the gated fan fest area outside the stadium. Iranians hugged Nigerians and Brazilians hugged everyone. A man (presumably American) wrapped in an American flag was called over to a group of Iran fans who required a five-minute photo shoot with their new friend before breaking into chants. The atmosphere felt more like a family reunion full of long-lost cousins and less like a football clash with important stakes on the line.
I made my way to the Budweiser-sponsored beer tent and settled into the crowd watching a horrible feed of the Germany-Portugal game. Did Pepe just lose his mind? The TV sputtered back to life after the ejection as everyone stared up in bewilderment, local Brahmas or overpriced Budweisers held for dear life in the swaying crowd. Tired of watching intermittent clips of what turned into a 4-0 thrashing, I entered the stadium and found my second-row seats.
A personal favourite of any international match, the national anthems and support shown to each team in the moments preceding the game didn’t disappoint. The players unfortunately faced the press boxes and away from the majority of fans – a theme consistent with every game I attended, but the moments of pride and patriotism from two vastly different nations still resonated with the heavily neutral contingent.
With no real rooting interest in the match itself, and as a die-hard Fulham supporter, I anticipated watching Ashkan Dejagah for most of the game. Instead of his right-side midfield position at Fulham, Dejagah started the game on the left and was even shifted up top as Iran’s lone striker for spells of the game. The match was the expected defensive battle pundits predicted with Iran barely completing 70 per cent of their passes and Nigeria doing little better. Promising free kicks sailed out of bounds and first touches seldom cooperated. Nearly two hours after entering the stadium, I left without seeing a goal or even a close call to rally the fans.
The experience, unique in its own way, ultimately felt less passionate and contested than a Premier League match or even a US National Team friendly. The play on the field also left much to be desired. With a clash between two teams hailing from the Americas in four days, I hoped for better things to come.
Matchday #2: A Latin American Clash
EC-UA-DOR! EC-UA-DOR! Loud chants by groups of Ecuador fans somehow managing to wear the exact same yellow jackets filtered through the streets of Curitiba days before the second match. The city looked like it belonged in Ecuador – a stark contrast to the days leading up to Iran-Nigeria. Severely outnumbered, yet loud in their own right, fans of Honduras also arrived, sporting blue-and-white flags and face paint.
After witnessing 90 minutes of uninspired football in the first match, I was convinced – for no real reason other than unabashed optimism – that the upcoming game would be a goal fest. Both teams were coming off losses in their first match and needed wins for any chance of advancing to the knockout stage.
Game day arrived and for the second time in a week I weaved my way to the stadium, showing my tickets at three sets of police checkpoints along the way. Once inside, the atmosphere at the stadium’s fan fest area buzzed with energy unlike the previous game, yet both teams’ supporters were still strikingly cordial to one another.
The ref’s whistle blew and it was apparent early on both teams wanted goals. There were swathes of open space on the pitch and incredibly athletic players on both sides of the pitch, yet possession regularly seemed to fizzle out, for both sides, in the final third. Honduras drew blood first when a long pass set up striker Carlo Costly for an impressive goal, as he finished to the left of the keeper. Ecuadorian goal-machine Enner Valencia quickly answered three minutes later, however, and the half-time score read 1-1.
Though the first half was sloppy and lacking sustained quality play, both teams were going for the win. Knowing the following game in Curitiba (Spain-Australia) was already meaningless, I pinned my hopes for a memorable game on the second half. Antonio Valencia, arguably the best player on the pitch, Ecuador’s captain, and a staple at Manchester United, continued to struggle throughout the final 45 and the game was slogging to a 1-1 draw until Enner Valencia headed a ball home from a free kick in the 65th minute.
The goal proved to be the winner and shouts of EC-UA-DOR! EC-UA-DOR! resonated down the hallways. I heard the chant and watched hundreds of fans clad in yellow celebrate their win until late in the night, finally feeling the energy I expected at the world’s greatest tournament.
Matchday #3: Farewell to a Football Powerhouse
My final match of World Cup 2014 experience was practically over before it began. Chile and the Netherlands’ dismantling of Australia were expected, but who knew the giants from Spain – winners of the last three major world tournaments – would be punching their ticket home before their final game of the opening round kicked off?
I tried to get excited for the game as I walked to the stadium for an early 1pm start, picturing Spain’s going away present to fans used to seeing silverware. Most likely, I thought, the manager inserts a handful of young, hungrier players with some of the old guard and plays loose, aggressive football with goals pouring in from every angle.
My predictions proved mostly accurate, as Spain started a revamped roster from the first two games – save all-time greats Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, and Xabi Alonso, literally the spine of Spain’s unprecedented run since 2008. Severely out-manned and outclassed from the opening minute, Australia managed to bring the loudest, feistiest supporters of the tournament. In a game with nothing to play for, I saw my first fights in the stadium and periods of sustained heckling.
The game surprisingly remained scoreless until the 36th minute, when David Villa scored with a beautiful back heel. Up a goal at half-time, Spain’s second unit looked like a collection of bored superstars playing a group of Saturday afternoon amateurs, although Fernando Torres managed to net a goal in the second half, before substitute Juan Mata put the game away in the 82nd minute by nutmegging the goalie.
Ultimately no more than an exhibition, I still felt the pride that Australian fans showed for even making the tournament. The appreciation with which Spanish supporters showered their team – a side likely ushering in the next generation of stars before Euro 2016 – resonated as well and served as a reminder that dynasties in sports are all too rare.
Immediately after Mata snuck the ball between the legs of Australia’s helpless keeper, I slipped out of the stadium and made my way to the airport. A flight to Porto Alegre and bus ride into Uruguay waited. I was still nervous for the United States’ game against Germany and admittedly, after watching my fellow Americans in the stands at two exhilarating games against Portugal and Ghana, wished the lottery dealt a different hand.
Attending the World Cup in person was nevertheless an experience – one most likely appreciated more and more with each passing day. Seldom dull and full of unexpected moments, my two weeks in Brazil proved a unique glimpse into the convergence of cultures, traditions, and sports fandom.