Natal: After a day battling with the Wi-Fi connection at the hotel – communications are not straightforward in the north-eastern coastal cities – I head to watch USA v Portugal on the terrace of a little bar. It is fun seeing fans of other teams watching matches and everyone seems to want USA to win, not least the lone American in attendance. He begins to pace when the board goes up for injury time and slumps when Silvestre Varela heads Portugal’s last-gasp equaliser from Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross. Ronaldo is referred to simply as Cristiano by the Brazilian TV commentator. There is only one Ronaldo here.
The soundest piece of advice for western Europeans in Brazil is simply to let go. Things take much longer over here but so what? Roll with it. Sadly, I was unable to do so as my taxi driver completed his third lap of the Estádio das Dunas and it seemed certain that I would miss the pre-Italy v Uruguay press conference. Neither of us had any idea of where the media entrance was and there were blank looks from the volunteers. Suddenly, by pure luck, we found it and, following a dash in flip-flops through surprisingly deep puddles, I made it in time for Andrea Pirlo. He never loses his cool.
The colour of match days is vivid. I bumped into four Uruguay fans who were dressed as Smurfs as I left the hotel but the day’s most surreal episode had yet to happen. Had Luis Suárez really done it again? As I watched the replays in the press box, it seemed to unfold in slow motion. And then it really was in slow motion, again and again, from every available angle. Later that night, in the cafe where we ate, Brazilian TV played the footage of Suárez biting Otman Bakkal, Branislav Ivanovic and Giorgio Chiellini on loop for what seemed like an age. Everybody just stared.
Belo Horizonte: There had been pre-tournament promises of new roads in the host cities. There have been none on the hour-long drive from Natal to the city’s airport. The potholes were so deep in places we virtually had to stop. The driver loved U2 and blasted it out. After the flight to Fortaleza came a novelty – the stopping service down to São Paolo. It was not a train, rather a plane that landed in Salvador, Belo Horizonte, where I hopped off, and onwards. I was issued with two boarding passes at Fortaleza for the same plane and I had to change seats at Salvador. The steward had an important announcement at 20,000ft – the full-time scores from Nigeria v Argentina and Bosnia v Iran.
You know Fred? The waiter nods. Everybody knows Fred, the Brazil striker and man about his home town of Belo Horizonte. The waiter also knows Bruno, another BH native, and Bruno is quite the story. A former Atlético Mineiro and Flamengo goalkeeper, Bruno is serving 22 years for the brutal murder of his former girlfriend, whose dismembered remains have never been found and were allegedly fed to dogs. Bruno, says the waiter, would have been Brazil’s No1 at this World Cup. “He just fell in with the wrong crowd,” he adds.
It is becoming noisier. More and more Chile fans have made it to Savassi Square and one local says 30,000 are expected, the majority without tickets. The anticipation builds before the last-16 meeting with Brazil. Tickets are gold dust – black market price: $2,000 – and those for Brazil’s pre-match press conference at the Estádio Mineirão are pretty scarce, too. Journos arriving two-and-a-half hours beforehand are put on a waiting list. Somehow, I get in. Luiz Felipe Scolari is on form and he gets a laugh when he is asked about Neymar’s legal battle with Playboy. “Playboy? I’m too old for that,” Scolari roars.
The days of days. It was one of the greatest professional privileges to cover Brazil v Mexico at the group phase – the atmosphere assaulted the senses – but the hosts’ tie against Chile was another level again. The supporters from both sides brought tremendous noise and passion. Outside the Estádio Mineirão, the fancy dress parade featured Darth Vader and the Grim Reaper. I was gripped by the spectacle as much as the outcome.