Spain, the last champions of the world, are out. Losing the title holders in the opening round is not a rare phenomenon. It happened to Italy in 2010, to France in 2002, and Brazil in 1966. Nevertheless the lack of a response in yesterday’s match against Chile from a team made up mostly of players from three of the world’s best clubs, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, and Barcelona, to the difficult situation has stunned most fanatics and analysts alike.
We watched the Spain-Chile match in a restaurant along Natal’s. Few businesses can exist without a television broadcasting the matches. Football from 12:30PM till 9:00PM. Only a small half hour window between matches is dedicated to the normally dominant Brazilian telenovelas.
We arrived in Natal the day before just in time to catch the Brazil-Mexico match at the city’s FIFA organized Fan Fest. The large screen and stage, like Fortaleza, was setup on the city’s sandy coast. With the sun setting beyond the iconic cable-stayed bridge, a light breeze off the ocean, and tens of thousands of Brazilians mixing with foreign guests to watch the game. The back-and-forth fight was well received by the crowd with “oohs” and “aahs.” Ochoa, the Mexican keeper, put on one of the best single match performances thus far at the cup. Small groups of Mexicans periodically got their voices together to sing their oles and cheer on their team. The heavily Brazilian partisan crowd was gracious. On the way into the Fan Fest cheered on their Mexican rivals, sticking out in the forest green jerseys in the sea of golden yellow. And after congratulated the Mexicans on their team’s performance. Though Brazilians are slightly more nervous about their team’s chances. Germany are considered the real contenders.
The match was a rarity in this world cup, which has so far been marked by its goals. Stunners like Cahill’s volley and the 4-nil trouncing of Portugal, who arrived already dead to the group of death, by Germany are recent examples. We might be witnessing the greatest generation of offensive players in the history of sport. Arjen Robben and Thomas Müller are already at three goals. Messi has a goal and matches against Iran and Nigeria to add to that account before it gets difficult. Neymar started with two before going a bit quiet versus Mexico. This cup is missing the Mourinho fever that struck the last one in South Africa. Defensive displays have been notably absent. While Goaltending from both Mexico’s Ochoa and Chile’s Claudio Bravo was very good, most games have revealed each team’s problems in defence.
Uruguay’s defensive implosion against Costa Rica was especially memorable for me. I was in the Castelão of Fortaleza for the cups most unlikely upset so far. Players that made up the core of Uruguay’s semi-finalists of the last world cup were a major disappointment, in particular Lugano. I’d gone to the stadium hoping that the upset of the group would be the small South American country’s advance in a very difficult group. Costa Rica was supposed to be the warm up for one of the best offensively endowed teams in the tournament. Instead the midfield was surrendered to Costa Rica, which caught a very slow Uruguay on the counter attack. A member in the Costa Rica camp told me after the match that “we had spies in their camp” but that “everyone knew that Lugano is slow.” The whiskey was flowing out of the hotel’s bar, the staff unable to keep the glasses full, for celebrating members of the Tico contingent.
The Castelão, one of the renovated stadiums, is impressive. Sitting on a raised platform that overlooks the surrounds, the brand new roof supports circle the original concrete bowl. It is a beautiful stadium. The sightlines even from the cheap seats are fantastic. And the noise reverberated by the roof adds to the intensity. Pockets of Costa Ricans, all in red, took full advantage singing “ole, ole ole ole, Tico, Tico!” in the warm up to the game. Uruguayans, however, were disappointing; especially given how boisterous they were in the lead up to the match. On the beaches of Fortaleza they were singing “we’ve return, we’ve returned, we’ve returned once again, come back to be champions, just like the very first time,” a not to subtle reference to the Maracanazo in 1950.
I can’t help but wonder if FIFA’s organizing of the seats has led to a less exhilarating crowd. Small pockets of Uruguayans were separated by large masses of Brazilians, many of whom preferred to watch the game seated. Those familiar with the dynamics of South American stadiums, know that standing is the most visceral way to participate in a match. Forcing the Uruguayans into a seated position seemed to also tame them. If the poor performance by their team after the opening 30 minutes was not enough.
Even on the bus from the city centre, the Uruguayans had been in full voice, dominating the free shuttle that carried fans to the suburban stadium. We rocked the bus back and forth with each jump, Brazilians stopping to smile and wave as we passed by. The organization around the stadium was impeccable. None of the worries that Brazil wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds.
Natal in comparison to Fortaleza seems rougher, multiple construction projects that should have been completed for the world cup such as an express busway to the stadium and small concrete stands along the beach remain unfinished. In contrast, the final coats of paint in Fortaleza were the last thing to be done, but all the flower pots were covered in green and yellow on match day. A new highway that normally would bring crowds in cars to the stadium was closed off for locally organized buses, streams of people poured out of the stadium and into small businesses along the route. On the way into the stadium, small lunch places were overwhelmed with a festive atmosphere, stray Colombians trying to catch every minute of their teams match on the television. Our bar ran out of beer into the second half, Colombia demonstrating why they are the group favourites.
One of the best things about the World Cup is the great mixtures of countries. As cities change teams, waves of new fans come into the city, while those of the previous match linger – waiting for flights or buses to their next city. Natal is its hang-over from the hordes of Americans that swept through the city. First hosting the Mexicans, I think the city misses them, the city had moved on to the exuberance of the North American dollars. We had one night with the large contingent of “Yankees” in the city, such a stark contrast to the smaller groups of Uruguayans and Costa Ricans in Fortaleza. Prices of everything went up, the large bottles of beer were replaced by small long-necks desired by the “gringos,” and one of the darker sides of the World Cup took on a more noticeable presence: prostitution in Natal is much more obvious and in your face. Sex workers, many of whom are teenagers, were walking along the promenade of Ponte Negra as hordes of American men drank – in the bars and nightclubs, as well as at dinner tables, couples negotiate prices. It created a very ambiguous situation, obviously exploitative and also in the end damaging for men and women alike – for the large numbers who are not participating in the sex industry, it makes feeling comfortable very difficult.
As the Japanese arrived in numbers the atmosphere noticeably changed. More relaxed. Many Japanese have come in families or with groups of men and women. Some by themselves or with just one friend. Pictures of Japanese cleaning the stadium after their first match loss have been held up as an example of “civilized culture” throughout South America. These differences of attitudes and cultural characteristics are interesting and fully on display. For host cities and those working around the World Cup there must be adjustments every few days. I’m excited to see the Japanese fans, their fantastic stadium culture for the J-League I’m hoping is translated into the international context. With both Japan and Greece in desperate need of a win the match should be a good one.