Belo Horizonte: Drama in the small hours. After the heart-stopper that was Brazil’s penalty shootout win over Chile the streets are strewn with spaced-out fans and debris. Suddenly, there is the sound of skidding tyres and a sickening crash. Two men have come off their motorcycle and people watch as it slides 100 yards from them. They had tried to squeeze through some cones that have sealed off a road only to come a cropper. Mercifully, they get up, stroll unhurt back towards the bike and get on. They take greater care when sneaking through the road-block at the top of the next street.
Porto Alegre: The bloke in the full Nationalmannschaft tracksuit can smile. “So – you are English,” he says. “When is your next game?” There is more. “Wayne Rooney, Andrea Pirlo and Andrés Iniesta are at the airport,” he continues. “Rooney says to them: ’What are you doing here?’ They say: ‘We’re waiting for Cristiano Ronaldo.’” Here is the human cost of England’s World Cup failure laid bare. The Germans are out in force for the last-16 tie against Algeria and this is a city in which they feel at home. One Porto Alegre resident tells me how “too many Germans emigrated here in the 19th century”. What he means is that there were very many.
Rio de Janeiro: Airports have proved excellent for football celeb-spotting. At the beginning of the tournament, I saw Cafu strolling through departures in Fortaleza. (I actually spotted a man being mobbed and papped by lots of excited people, wondered who it was and saw it was Cafu.) The former Brazil hero was on his own and he had all the time in the world for the fans before an airport security guard finally stepped in to usher him to a sealed-off area. Boarding the flight to Rio at Porto Alegre, I notice Dunga, another former Brazil hero. It is an unprepossessing domestic flight; three-and-three either side of the aisle, economy front to back. These guys do not seem to crave the VIP treatment.
Rio de Janeiro: “Caipirinha! Caipirinha!” shouts the man on the beach. It is 10 o’clock in the morning. Brazil is a crazy country but this feels like a step too far. Rio teems with energy. Motorcyclists bomb through the crawling motorway traffic, peeping their horns while car window-to-window sellers walk in the opposite direction. The first thing you notice is the quality of the beach footballers’ touches. I see a couple of English blokes being humiliated. This is not the place to stick the reducer in.
My hotel room has no wifi and a single plug from which the charge is fairly erratic. Oh Brazil, you are really testing me. But this place has the capacity to provide tremendously uplifting moments. Seeing the Maracanã for the first time is one. I arrive for the pre-match press conferences ahead of the Germany v France quarter-final. Joachim Löw, the Germany manager, is asked about Toni Kroos’ prospective transfer from Bayern Munich to Real Madrid. “You can ask him yourself because he is in here after me,” Löw says. He is impressively accommodating with the media.
Germany have beaten France at the Maracanã, all of the post-match messing about is done and the issue is where to catch the tail-end of Brazil’s tie with Colombia, given the media centre is too boring. We make a break for Avenida Atlântica, which is normally a time-consuming battle through traffic. Not today. Hardly anyone is on the roads and as we whizz through, we can see people glued to the TV in houses, cafes and bars. Watching Brazil watch Brazil in a high-speed taxi is surreal. We get back for the nervy finale and there is relief among the locals, more than anything else, when it is all over.
There are few more beautiful sights than watching the sun come up over the Copacabana. The joggers are out, the palm trees are still and the waves lap at the sand. But there are also thick heads after the night before and the only topic of football conversation is Neymar. There remains disbelief at the cruelty of his injury, particularly after everything he has done over the past three weeks. Brazil has lived every breath of this World Cup through Neymar. There is a sense of loss.