All good things must come to an end. The U.S. men’s national team lost in heartbreaking fashion, ending its inspiring tournament run and my first ever World Cup fan experience along with it.
Much was reported on regarding domestic controversies and accusations of unpreparedness that host nation Brazil faced leading up to the event. Not to mention the potential dangers foreign travelers might expect to encounter (ranging from violent riots to stadium death-by-toilet).
But after having traveled there and back in one piece, Brazil receives nothing but high marks in my book.
World Cup (game play)
On the pitch itself, the 2014 World Cup has been nothing short of amazing. World-class goals, grueling group schedules and astonishing results have captured the interests of even the most casual soccer fans.
I mean, how can somebody see this and not want more after?
Team story-lines included underdog successes of Colombia, Costa Rica, and the United States–as well as tremendous disappointment for Spain, Italy, England and Portugal.
Individual stars such as Neymar (Brazil) and James Rodriguez (Colombia) introduced themselves to a global audience in grand fashion, while established icons Lionel Messi (Argentina) and Thomas Müeller (Germany) reasserted their status as the world’s best on its biggest stage.
I could go on, but the videos below pretty much sum this category up for me.
(It wouldn’t be right to not include Rodriguez’s knockout round goal against Uruguay)
In an effort to showcase the many diverse regions of Brazil, FIFA agreed to increase the number of host cities to 12 for the 2014 World Cup (up from the standard 8-10). I made it to five of the 12 cities; Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Natal, Manaus and Recife. With close to half as a personal sample size and through word of mouth from others, the consensus seems to be that FIFA and Brazil did not miss when it came to host city selection.
The brilliance of Brazil is highlighted by how different each region, state and city is from the others. Sao Paulo (a major metropolis in the Southeast region), and Manaus (the most populous city in the North-Amazon region) are worlds apart, similar only through shared uniqueness. Recife and Natal are both coastal cities, but the beaches of Natal are surrounded by restaurant shacks and merchant booths while Recife’s boardwalk is lined with city high-risers.
Rio de Janeiro had a little bit of everything; perfectly illustrated by the close proximity between the mob-run favelas and the famous Copacabana shoreline . . . all glowing under the presence of the awe-inspiring statue, Christ the Redeemer.
Hard to find that kind of tropical-city-jungle-beach combo many other places in the world.
There was a fair amount of controversy between the Brazilian government and its citizens over the cost expended to build seven brand new stadiums and renovate five others. On this grading sheet however, points aren’t awarded (or lost) for economical/political reasoning. Therefore, venues will be graded strictly on a basis of overall fan experience. Having said that . . .
. . . the stadiums were awesome! Again, my sample size is limited to the three venues the U.S. played group stage games (Natal, Manaus and Recife); but they were all incredible. Each stadium held between 40,000 – 45,000 people, and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. The cleverly designed structures and small stadium capacity allowed for a clear view of the game from any level and angle.
I don’t know what will become of some of these venues without proper maintenance, but for at least one summer, they were world class.
Grade: C+ (U.S. biased: C-)
The ironic difficulty stemming from FIFA’s attempt to put the World Cup on display in every region of the massive nation lies within the words themselves; Brazil is an absolutely enormous.
Some teams and supporters got lucky with their travel schedule (like Belgium), needing only to travel a few hours by bus across the southern Brazilian cities of Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo for their group stage matches. U.S. players and fans were substantially less fortunate, flying east-to-west from game 1 (Natal) to game 2 (Manaus), before coming all the way back east again to face Germany in game 3 (Recife).
Basically, if any (non-Belgian) fans wanted to follow their team across the country, they had to either fly from city to city. Travel costs aside, it would have been easier for all parties (players and fans alike) if the grid of host cities was less expansive. A train system running along the Brazilian coast from the Northeast cities to the Southeast cities could prove helpful as well, World Cup or no World Cup.
It pains me to say this because the Amazon was my favorite part of the trip, but FIFA probably could have left Manaus off the list of host cities, if only for convenience. Many U.S. fans didn’t make the trip due to the high cost of air travel. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent in Northern Brazil, but the time and money spent getting there and around the rest of this gigantic country was burdensome.
I cringe at the thought of what an unfavorable travel schedule at the 2018 Russia World Cup could look like.
This is about as subjective a category to grade an entire nation on as it gets, especially when considering the following; a) the few places I stayed at may not accurately represent the majority, b) the price I paid for most of these places fell on the lower end of the cost spectrum, and, c) the age-old correlation between money paid and quality received always holds true.
I’ll try to remain as impartial as possible, but a grade must be given, and a few personal experiences can’t be ignored.
The Good: There was no shortage of room availability, which was a surprisingly pleasant discovery for a guy who still hadn’t made any reservations before May 1. Fans traveling on a budget ($35-50 per person/night) were able to enjoy the city during the day, before lavishing in simple luxuries such as air conditioning and fresh towels upon their return. For double that price (which is still pretty inexpensive), fans could double their comfort level with lukewarm showers and a dependable WiFi connection.
The Bad: My bed in Manaus was a wood plank. No, that’s not a simile. It was literally a wooden plank with a sheet over it. Over three-plus weeks in Brazil, I took zero hot showers, one warm shower, and a few dozen freezing-cold ones. It wasn’t hard to wake up in the mornings, though. Upon my arrival at the Natal Economy Flat Hotel in the midst of an epic rainstorm, I walked into a room flooded to the ankles (looks nice below, right?).
On my second day in Natal, a bunk neighbor of mine had to be rushed to the ER after suffering chemical burns on his back when a leaky ceiling caused the bathroom light to explode over him. “If this were America, that guy would own this place,” a U.S. federal agent staying there with us quipped. The hotel paid for some bandages and his cab ride to the hospital. Better than nothing, I suppose.
Bizarre horror stories aside, most of the places I stayed at were more than acceptable for the price. You get what you pay for at huge events like these with hotels booked long in advance. In my case I got a bed to sleep on, an air-conditioned room and a door that locked. That’s good enough for me.
For all of the talk about how dangerous traveling to Brazil was supposed to be, I can honestly say that I never once felt unsafe. That’s partially due to the fact that I generally try not to put myself in dangerous situations, but it also had something to do with the thousands of Brazilian military and police patrolling city streets around the clock.
For a country that claims to be in a massive dry spell, Brazil sure got a healthy dose of rain during the World Cup. City streets shut down after weeks of downpour, but a few days of rain didn’t put much of a damper on anybody’s trip. If anything, it added an element of funkiness to the overall experience.
General Expenses (B+)
Brazil is a fairly inexpensive country to live, eat and get around in. Merchandise prices are much lower than in the U.S., but so is the quality of product. Taxi rides cost about the same, but that can be avoided by taking the bus, metro and/or subway system in each city. Brazilian street food is nothing to brag about (lots of beans and white rice), but it was cheap . . . and a little picanha (Brazilian beef rump cut similar to U.S. culotte) mixed with rice, beans and pimiento (hot sauce) makes for a delicious $8 meal in any country.
Brazilian Culture (A++)
I could write a whole other blog about how amazing the Brazilian culture and people were, but it would be difficult to put into words that can truly do it justice. The best I can do is give an A-plus-plus, and hope we understand it doesn’t get any better.
Still mesmerized by the lingering nostalgia of my first World Cup experience, it was difficult to give Brazil anything other than an A+ as a host nation. But since and I don’t really have any precedent for comparison, and because I want to believe that the 2018 World Cup will somehow top Brazil 2014 . . .
BRAZIL WORLD CUP OVERALL
Your move, Russia.