It’s 3:00am and I’m walking along Copacabana beach. It’s the sort of night that belittles winter as we know it. It’s lukewarm and gentle, and there’s a shorts-and-thongs type breeze flowing across the bay.
The moon’s disappeared somewhere behind the clouds, waves climb and crash into one another out in the blackness, and an illuminated Christo keeps sentry from the cliff top above.
And the Argentinians are signing. Boy, are they singing.
We’ve been walking along the beach for some time, hearing their chants echo from a distance. And so as we pull up to the main section of the beach, it’s no surprise to see a two-thousand-odd crowd huddled together on the sand. They’re bouncing and swaying to the rhythm of their own voices, armed with what seems like a never-ending arsenal of flags, drums and whistles.
“Brasil, decime qué se siente, tener en casa a tu papá?”, they sing. Brazil, how does it feel to be bossed around in your home? “A Messi lo vas a ver, la Copa nos va a traer, Maradona es más grande que Pelé!” You are going to see Messi, the World Cup will be ours, Maradona is greater than Pelé!
It’s a wondrous mass of noise and colour, and I want more. I’m wearing a Brazilian jersey though, having just come back from the capital, where the national team was slaughtered for the second time in a week. Keen to avoid a public hanging, I take off the jersey, throw it to a mate and take my topless-self into the inner sanctum of blue and white.
I cop a few stray elbows to the head as I burrow my way deeper through the crowd, but I finally reach the core. There’s a Sun of May wherever I look, a panoply of Messi-number-10-clad men and a small percussion band dictating the tempo. The energy here is infectious and raw; it bites you without warning, slaps you across the cheek and invites you to come closer and closer.
I make the assessment that I’m surrounded by two categories of fans. There are those who are all perpetual motion: fist-pumping, chest-beating, battle-masks on. They scream as if it might be the last breath they take. If it weren’t for context, it’d almost be frightening. Then there are the others. Eyes closed, hands held aloft or clasped together at their chests, they sing almost under their breath, as if chanting to a higher power.
I’m not sure how they’re managing to resist getting swept away in what’s around us, but it’s fair to say that they’re completely lost in the moment.
Yet whether they’re animated beyond containment or seemingly calm and motionless, they all believe in the same thing. They all want the same thing. They could be anywhere, on any stage, and they’d still carry themselves in the same way. But they’re not just anywhere and this is no regular stage.
You see, in a matter of hours, Argentina will take on Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup final. For Argentina, it’s been a 24-year-long-wait since they’ve last felt what it’s like to be here at the end. And they’re not ready to let go of that feeling just yet.
It’s at this point that I realise I’ve lost my mates and so I retreat to the outer circle hoping to see them. I can’t, though I find myself standing next to an Argentinian chap, not much older and not much taller than me. He’s stone-faced and stock-still, flag cloaked tightly around his shoulders as he watches the revelry before us. For whatever reason, he seems a bit crestfallen, so I offer him a hello.
His English is broken and backwards, but we manage to have a decent chat. He tells me of a month spent living out of a van, following the Albiceleste around Brazil. He’s been to every Argentinian game at the tournament so far, having travelled from Rio to Belo Horizonte to Porto Alegre, to Sao Paolo to Brasilia, back to Sao Paolo and now full-circle back to Rio. Though, like so many others in the city, he hasn’t been able to score a ticket to the final. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I have.
We swap stories of football and travel and women, but all the while he seems a bit vacant. I ask him why he isn’t joining his countrymen in the merrymaking. He hesitates, and for a second I think he doesn’t quite catch the question. But I soon realise he’s fighting against the words he’s about to say.
“I am scared… inside… I feel tomorrow, we lose.”
And I can tell this isn’t some pantomime fear. It’s deep-seeded and real, and as we’ll come to learn (um, spoiler alert), completely justified. But it drives home a point that can be lost among the anticipation and euphoria of the game of games. When you strip away the football from the football and tune in to the pure emotion at base level, the World Cup final is one gargantuan monster of ambivalence.
It teases and it tempts, pairing the possibility of ultimate glory alongside the possibility of ultimate heartbreak. Ecstasy and misery in equal measure. Sure, eternal greatness is there for the taking, but just be prepared to fall if you fail, and fall hard. It’s cruel and it’s twisted but it’s beautiful all the same. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s Thursday morning, three days before the World Cup final, and I’m walking along the streets of Flamengo.
Last night, Brazil’s worst nightmare edged closer to realisation, as Argentina edged out the Dutch on penalties to sneak into the final. Coupled with that game against Germany and this is a country very much in mourning. The lament is written everywhere – literally. I pass a street vendor and the collage of hanging newspapers screams of a postmortem still in full-swing.
The vast majority of covers bear an image of the Brazilian players or Scolari in varying poses of pain and/or embarrassment. I flick through one of the papers and there’s a list of match ratings from the Germany game. Every Brazilian player gets a zero. Funnily enough, there aren’t too many covers showing Argentina’s win from the night before.
Life goes on though, and so too does football. True to this, we come across a community football exhibition tucked away in a nearby park. It’s swarming with school children who are sitting in on workshops, visiting pop-up museums and galleries, and playing on foosball tables and other assorted interactive games.
1994 World Cup winner Raí, younger brother of cult legend Sócrates, is even here. But the main drawcard for the event is a small, six-a-side synthetic field, encased in a cage of netting. There’s a mini-grandstand at one end and so we sit down to watch, hoping we might chance upon the next jewel of Brazilian football.
The kids are pretty good, but more importantly, it’s all smiles and laughs. There’s a long line of different schools waiting their turn on the sidelines and so the rotations are quick, as the organisers try to work their way through. Finally, it appears as though they’re down to the last school.
There’s about 30 boys in this group, ranging from what I’d say would be ages 10-15 or so, sporting a uniform of white singlets and blue shorts. They’ve been waiting patiently and their excitement at finally playing is palpable. They pour onto the field and proceed to run themselves ragged, while their professor barks instructions next to us.
He’s a cool looking dude, this professor. For Breaking Bad fans, think Gus Fring, but more grey and in a tracksuit. We notice that the game is beginning to peter out and that home time can’t be too far off, and so we ask the professor, using hopeless Portuguese and desperate charades, if we can join in. Thankfully he speaks English, and he gives us his blessing, so as long as we refrain from dishing out any Kevin Muscat-type two-footers.
And then there we were, a bunch of Aussie blokes from Sydney mixing it with a school of free-spirited Brazilian kids. On account of my shaved head and the French jersey I wear, the kids christen me Benzema. Sure, I’ll take that. One of my mates has long, shaggy hair and so he’s dubbed David Luiz. They’re also quick to give themselves names. There’s Thiago Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo and of course Neymar. I jokingly call a small boy Fred and he rolls his eyes and cackles. Good one, Benzema.
It’s easily the most fun I’ve had in a long while, but somewhere the call is made to pack it up. I’m thankful in a way; it’s a hot day and the French jersey is absolutely soaked, though we’re rewarded when someone hands us some bottles of water and football-shaped ice creams.
During the post-match wind-down, the professor tells us a bit about the school. We learn that they’re from Vidigal, a small favela located at the base of the Morro Dois Irmãos, or the Two Brothers Mountain. Once a melting pot of drugs and criminal activity, and strictly off-limits to outsiders, the favela has undergone a transformation in recent years, to the point where it’s now identified as one of the more friendlier and hospitable favelas in Rio.
The professor has taken a warming to us it seems, and he invites us to visit the school in Vidigal. Sure, we tell him, we’d love to come by one day. He says that the school bus is leaving in five minutes and that if we want to come, we better grab a seat quick smart.
And then there we were, a bunch of Aussie blokes on a school bus headed for the mountains of Rio. The school treats us as one of their own, even giving us some lunch packs together alongside the kids, who are an absolute joy. For the entire journey, they lean out the windows of the bus, chanting songs and waving to people on the street. They receive a few stern words from the professor, but whenever he’s not looking they’re at it again, tapping the glass and jostling for the prime head-out-the-window position.
We arrive at the base of the mountain, but there’s only one narrow road that climbs up through Vidigal and the school bus can’t navigate it. Some of the kids begin the steep walk uphill, while others hop on the back of a waiting motorcycle. My mates and I opt to bundle into the small, rickety van of a man who’s offering to take us up for a couple of Real each.
It doesn’t sound safe, but it is, for the most part anyway. The drive up is corner after corner, bump after bump, horn-honk after horn-honk. In short, it’s absolute mayhem, but it gives us a good chance to take in Vidigal.
The favela itself is perched on the edge of the mountain and the higher you wind up the road, the more picturesque your view of the Atlantic is. The ocean hides behind clusters of trees and tiny houses that elbow each other for room. Some are poor, with unfinished brickwork, half-missing doors and protruding wires, but there are those that boast fresh-coats of paint and quaint outdoor settings. There’s a steady stream of supermarkets and clothes shops and bars, populated with old men in singlets playing cards and smoking cigars.
We’re about halfway up the mountain when we arrive at the gates of the school. We thank our driver for somehow keeping us alive and walk through to meet the professor. We see some of the kids from the bus and they scream out to Benzema and David Luiz and wave us forward. There’s a full-length, caged-off synthetic football pitch at the centre of the grounds, with a concrete running-track looping around it, a small futsal arena and a volleyball court to its side, and two stories of classrooms resting above.
The place is abuzz with chatter and scuffled footsteps, and we greet the professor at the door of the cage, hoping to join in the game once again. Though this is strictly school-time now, the professor informs us, but he invites us to watch on from a concrete grandstand nearby.
I remember sitting at the very top of that grandstand, with panoramic views of the school, favela and ocean beyond, and noticing the looks on the faces of my mates. They were all whisper-quiet and probably for the first time on the trip, camera phones were in pockets. We had found a moment of tranquility away from the bustle of this unrelenting city, and I think, in that moment, we all knew just how lucky we were.
It’s quiet still, until one of the boys murmurs the classic line from The Castle: “How’s the serenity? So much serenity.”
We laugh, but it’s completely on-point. Hand us a few beers and we could have stayed atop that grandstand for days. The night was beginning to fall though and so we climbed down from our lookout and said our goodbyes to the professor and the kids. Although we only have a few days left in Rio, we promise to come back again (which we did, twice). And each time, the experience is better still. Such is football.
Some days later, a local tour guide tells us the story of how Vidigal came to be. Miguel Nunes Vidigal was a Portuguese commander of the Royal Guard Police and one of Rio’s most powerful men of the 19th century. A personal favourite of the king, Vidigal was hard-nosed and ruthless and for this he was largely despised by the common folk. The higher authorities held him in high regard though and he was given the land we now know was Vidigal as a reward for his work.
But Vidigal didn’t want the land at all, instead electing to return to his native Portugal. The people of Vidigal later named the town after the commander. Why? So that no matter what, the town would always be attached to him, whether he liked it or not. Brilliant.
It’s the morning after the World Cup final and I’m on the Maracanã.
The corporate gods have smiled upon me indeed, because I’m one of a select few to be granted complete pitch access to this colossus of an arena. It’s nothing short of incredible to be able to visit a stadium like this in such a way, let alone hours after a World Cup final, and the opportunity certainly isn’t lost on me.
We’re given bags and bags of Brazucas and roughly one hour to do as we please, and I run around like a kid in the proverbial candy store. I take free kick after free kick, penalty after penalty, hearing the thump of each strike bellow throughout the near-empty stadium. I see a scatter of people queuing up to hit the ball at the same curious spot, a little ways outside the box. I realise they’re trying to do what the ghost of Messi-past couldn’t and score that free kick at the death to take the game to penalties.
We’re also given access to the change rooms. They’re far from flashy, I admit, with black wood and plastic the most common denominators. In the German change room, I sit down in Phillip Lahm’s spot and fantasise playing his part. I catch myself bouncing my legs up and down and for a moment I’m quasi-nervous; these players must have minds of steel.
Ready or not, you’d be able to hear the rumble of the crowd from down here, calling you out. It’s almost gladiator-esque: silently waiting in the barracks below until the gates opened and you march resiliently out to the mob. I don’t go to the Argentinian change-room. I imagine it has a graveyard feel to it.
A barren Maracanã is a spooky thing, especially considering that the night before 76,000 people took this place beyond the realm of sport. I look over to where I sat the night before. Block 122, row Y, seat seven nestled in the corner down the line from where Schürrle delivered the decisive ball for Götze.
We were seated down near the German end, though off to the side, and as the ball hit the net I remember seeing an explosion of flailing arms and flying beer cups. There was a German father-and-son pair sitting behind us who we’d been giving stick to all game (after they mistakenly thought we were New Zealanders). The son’s arms were stretched out to the heavens, laughing in delight. His old man had his palms pressed together at his lips and through his glasses I could see a few hanging tears.
For every German celebrating that night, there were four Brazilians breathing a heavy-hearted sigh of relief. When the Argentinians first took the field for the pre-game warm-up for example, the chorus of boos was deafening. There were plenty of German fans, yes, but this noise came from every pocket of the stadium.
And then on closer inspection, you could see it plainly around you: Brazilian fans, wearing Brazilian jerseys, with small German flags painted on their cheeks. There was a Brazilian man sitting in front of me at the game, who reacted as though every Argentinian charge on goal was an assault on his own mother. He frothed at the mouth, spitting out words that I know were pure hatred. Hell would freeze over before he saw Argentina become champions in his own backyard.
Back on the pitch, last-call is sounded and so I decide to chance my arm in a penalty against my best mate. He lines up in goal and I place the ball on the spot, in front of the goal where Götze scored. I decide that going the same side as Götze would be a tad predictable, so I set my sights on the opposite top corner.
I hit it sweetly enough and I’m almost ready to peel away in celebration, but my mate somehow manages to palm it over to safety. We dust ourselves off and have a chuckle, and I throw him a high-five and a well done. But I’m secretly burning inside. My last kick on the World Cup stage, and I buckle.
As the group trickles down the tunnel, I manage to steal one last moment for myself. I sit down, smack-bang on the kick-off dot. My shorts are probably marred with chalk and paint, but I don’t care. I stretch my arms out behind me and rest my palms against this oh-so sacred bed of grass. I push my fingertips into the turf and attempt to physically program the stadium to my memory. It works, I think, because as I type this I can still recall the feel of the blades of grass and the texture of the dirt against my skin.