After experiencing the cricket world cup in India in early 2011 and then the rugby world cup in New Zealand in late 2011, I headed back to South America to watch the football world cup return home to Brazil for the first time in 64 years.
In an earlier blog I explained how we secured tickets and since Dyl and I had both visited Rio before, and made our way south to Argentina from there, we decided to explore the northern coast. (South Africa’s Bafana Bafana did not qualify so that was not dictating our route). This decision was based on the fact that there we some five or six games over a two week period across the northern beach cities of Recife, Natal and Fortaleza, and we intended to buy tickets for a match in each, as well as heaps of awesome non-football things to see and do.
(I had first met Dyl outside a cricket stadium in India and sharing a passion for sport, we very quickly became great friends. We continued our sporting travels in New Zealand, met up in London for the 2012 Olympics and have been seeing as much sport as we can since moving here not long after the Olympics).
Tickets were bought before the draw is made and while we weren’t fussed which games we would watch, since Bafana had not qualified, we couldn’t have been more fortunate as we ended up with tickets to watch the Ivorian mighty elephants twice (vs. Japan and Greece) and the Ghanaian Black Stars once (vs. the USA). With Bafana Bafana having failed to qualify, watching two African teams was as good as it could get and we quickly purchased an Ivorian football shirt!
Match 1 – Ivory Coast vs. Japan
Arena Pernambuco – Recife
We flew via Lisbon to Recife for our first game, just making kick-off as our flight has been cancelled and we arrived 24 hours later than planned! The atmosphere inside the recently completed and impressive stadium was fantastic and on a sweltering humid evening, the Mighty Elephants came from behind to win 2-1.
Some two hours south of Natal is the stunning Pipa beach. There are numerous buses running daily from the central bus station in Natal and Pipa is the kind of place you stay at for far longer than you had planned. The beach is wide and sandy, dolphins often come close enough to see from shore and the town has a great feel about it. Like everywhere we went, towns were packed with people and there was a wonderful atmosphere with football being shown on every available TV.
Match 2 – Ghana vs. USA
Estadio das Dunas – Natal
There was huge American support in, and around, the stadium and non-stop chants of USA, USA, USA rang out for the full 90 minutes. Having being eliminated by the Black Stars in 2012, the USA were after revenge and they scored within the 1st minute; in fact it was the fifthfastest World Cup goal of all time! Ghana were rattled and they took most of the first half to find their feet.
The second half was very entertaining, with end-to-end football. Ghana eventually equalised in the 82nd minute but hopes of a point were dashed just four minutes later as America hit the winner to send the partisan SUA crowd into raptures.
Just over 100kms and a three-hour bus ride north of Natal, São Miguel do Gostoso is the departure point for an awesome day’s beach-buggy adventuring along the coast. You could in fact travel the entire 750 kms from Natal to Fortaleza by beach buggy and we headed north for a few hours and enjoyed a delicious seafood lunch at a tiny village only accessible via the beach.
Match 3 – Ivory Coast vs. Greece
Arena Castelao – Fortaleza
My (expected) final game saw Ivory Coast take on Greece and just as the Might Elephants seemed destined to reach the knockout stages, having equalised mid-way through the second half, a stoppage-time penalty sent Greece through with a 2-1 victory. We were absolutely gutted having been close to seeing an African team in the knock-out stages of a world cup.
Some 300kms north of Fortaleza is the almost mythical town of Jericoacoara. Blesse with a beautiful beach and stunning coastal scenery, as well excellent restaurants and a super-fun nightlife, it’s a wonderful place to get off the grid for a few days. Part of it’s appeal lies in the fact that it’s so hard to reach, access is only by unpaved tracks through the dunes, so if you do make the effort to get here, make sure you give yourself a few days to really unwind.
Bonus Match – Hollland vs. Mexico (Round of 16)
Arena Castelao – Fortaleza
We headed back in Fortaleza where the guys had tickets for the first round of 16 game. My flight was departing just a few hours after the game and my original plan was to watch the game in a pub; seeing so many Dutch and Mexican fans all over town changed my mind, however, and my ingenious plan worked as I found myself a ticket whilst walking around the train station repeatedly!
It was a gorgeous day and I literally had front row seats! Mexico plated far better football and leading 1-0 with two minutes to play, it looked for all money that they would be playing in just their third ever quarter final in 16 tournaments (having lost their previous five round of 16 games).
Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben had other ideas, however, and after Robben’s wonderful goal, it was Robben who won a penalty no more than 5m from me to secure a last-gasp and to be frank, underserved win.
The Dutch would eventually lose to Argentina in the semi-final and go onto beat Brazil 3-0 to claim 3rd.
It has been an incredible two and a bit weeks watching so much football and experiencing this wonderful slice of Brazil.