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My Trip To Brazil: A Year Of Expectation

Without the riches required to attend the World Cup, having an unhealthy interest in Latin American football [www.barrabravabook.com] and my girlfriend’s family to meet, I travelled to Brazil in January to understand what the select few would experience.

The Mineirão’s first competitive goal of 2014, a stooping header from 22-year-old Ricardo Goulart, was sufficient to claim the points for Cruzeiro in their opening fixture of the Minas Gerais state league against URTIt’s the most important year in the stadium’s half century of existence, as Brazil hopes this will be the venue for their Seleção’s round of 16 and semi-final triumphs. Before the host’s probable visit to the country’s third largest city, 4 group games are scheduled, featuring 3 nations hotly tipped to make it to the latter stages of the tournament (Colombia, Belgium, Argentina) and England.

With 4 hours to kick off there was a palpable buzz of expectation around the Mineirão’s vast swathes of concrete, elevated above the city centre. Some 6 months earlier it was the setting for Atlético Mineiro’s dramatic Copa Libertadores Final victory against Uruguay’s Nacional. In November 2013 the area was again awash with celebrating Mineiros as Cruzeiro cantered to the Série A title, completing a national and continental double for Belo Horizonte (known as BH – ‘Bay Agah’).  Although far from filling its 62,000 capacity on the sunny Sunday I visited, there were still the familiar sights of coaches full of singing fans, large flags being waved, hawkers selling their genuinely fake wares and the hum of conversation and laughter in street-side bars. The stadium’s exterior is an oval mass of gaudy, grey 1960’s architecture, contrasting to the modern and well equipped interior, with stands raised above pitch level to ensure that all spectators have a good view of proceedings. Whilst there was a distinctly pedestrian air to proceedings on the field, the atmosphere in the stands was at full pelt with the one packed end generating a booming noise throughout.

On the sound of the final whistle in the venue which will host England’s decisive group D tie, I hailed a taxi to BH’s other significant stadium.  Perched on the crest of a hill, surrounded by a neighbourhood clinging precariously to steep faces, Estádio Independência was the setting for one of the 3 Lions’ more embarrassing moments.  The 3 sided ground, with compact vertical stands, hosted the 1950 World Cup match which saw USA’s semi-pros defeat Billy Wright and company.  As darkness descended América Mineiro traded a goal apiece with Tupi, whilst shakers and snare drums provided a toe-tapping beat for the green and white faithful’s constant passionate singing.

In Brazilian terms Belo Horizonte is a relatively non-descript city, with a slightly disorientating central grid system set at a 45 degree angle, numerous high rise buildings and pleasantly unpretentious urban parks. The popular Savassi neighbourhood boasts pavement bars, several of the city’s international hotels and is only a 70p, half hour bus ride from the ground. In comparison to Rio’s arcs of golden sands, crashing Atlantic waves and legendary nightlife, BH lacks a little allure, but is an honest city of friendly locals, good food and beer, sparse traffic and cheap, efficient transport links. The England fans lucky enough to be in town on 24th June are sure to receive a warm welcome.

 

The Maracanã’s first match of year had a more sedate feel to it.  Even though the most passionate fans (torcidas organizadas) were boycotting the fixture due to ticket prices (£15) there was an hour’s wait in the shimmering heat to pass through the turnstiles.  Groups of torcidas paraded an array of large flags past the queue snaking around the side of the colossal venue, before disappearing into the local neighbourhood. Like the Mineirão, it is a monumental year for this iconic football ground, as a nation still haunted by the ghosts of Barbosa and Uruguay 64 years ago, aims to win their 6th title there.

The lead up to the Mundial has been far from ideal domestically, with no sides reaching the Copa Libertadores semi-finals, in spite of 5 teams participating in the group stages, and their being at least one Brazilian representative in each of the last nine finals.  But perhaps the most chaotic story in recent times started with the final round of Série A matches in December. Amongst the corruption, controversial host cities, half-completed stadiums and large scale protests, the fate of one of the country’s most prestigious teams seemed to get minimal international coverage. On the last Sunday of a championship interrupted by the Confederations Cup, Rio giants Vasco da Gama and Fluminense were floundering at the wrong end of the table.  Vasco’s fate was confirmed when they lost heavily to Atlético Paranaense, against a backdrop of violent scenes in the stands, rubber bullets fired by security and the injured being rushed to hospital in a helicopter.  Despite coming back from a goal down in the north-eastern city of Salvador, other results narrowly consigned Fluminense to Série B.  Within 2 weeks the previous year’s champions were controversially reinstated to the top tier, after the Superior Court of Sporting Justice relegated rival Portuguesa by docking them 4 points for fielding an ineligible player.

This was not the first occasion that the team associated with Rio society’s elite have been assisted by the authorities, a league restructure in 1999 ensured they jumped two divisions. With accusations and conspiracy theories flying around, a civil court adjudicated that Portuguesa’s points and Série A standing be reinstated, but the CBF (Brazilian FA) refused to recognise the decision.  The side representing São Paulo’s Portuguese community dutifully started their first scheduled Série B fixture in Joinville, but left the field after quarter of an hour when a court official handed the ruling to match officials.  The game was abandoned and the points retrospectively awarded to their opponents, as they eventually consigned themselves to the decision. Just months before the World Cup, it was undoubtedly a disorganised start to the national league season.

Disorganised is one of the politer ways I could describe the Maracanã’s ticket purchasing situation on that blazing hot Sunday in January.  However, the frustrating introduction did not diminish the sense of awe walking out into the arena just before the break.  The modern facilities, multi-coloured sturdy seating and reduced capacity lent a distinctly contemporary feel to the stadium, but the sense of historical significance and majesty remained.  It reminded me of a space-aged Estadio Azteca (Mexico) with curvy ends and sides tight to pitch.  Even with only 12,000 inside the 78,000 all-seated venue, the acoustics were really impressive, as songs reverberated around the stands with the roof containing and amplifying the noise.  This atmosphere looks even more extraordinary at night when the roof is illuminated with the home team’s colours.

No matter which 2 nations walk out onto the Maracanã’s hallowed turf on 13 July, it is sure to be a memorable spectacle.

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