A gorgeous, sunny day; an old friend visiting from NYC who happened to show up for a USA match; another old friend racing back to see her country play; and yet another old friend back from his travels, all to be reunited in the gorgeous, gleaming Salvador stadium.
Another friend didn’t have a ticket, but details like this didn’t seem to matter on this magical day: walking to the stadium three hours early to soak up the atmosphere, (and thecheap beer and not-so-cheap caipirinhas), five Texans stopped us to enquire if we had tickets. They had been given three for free to give away, and so a phone-call later a very excited Ecuadorian-American buddy was rushing to the stadium, ready to buy the beers for us for the rest of the day.
I love getting to games early on match day. We had time to meet some crazy people, (a local pretending to be Argentinian whilst wearing a USSR jersey; a Belgian wearing a kilt; the usual), and to sip ice cold miniature beers whilst watching Messi and Argentina struggle to an extra-time 1-0 win over minnows Switzerland, (if the team ranked 6th best in the world can be considered minnows).
With so many teams scraping through with late goals and on penalty shoot-outs, it really seems like this is the most open World Cup I can ever remember. Favourites? What favourites?
US jerseys (and accents) outnumbered Belgian about four-to-one on the way in, but there were still some classy Europeans around, from Tintin t-shirts to the beautiful black Belgian away jersey which I failed to convince anyone to trade me for.
Inside, (as expected for a game people were literally giving tickets away for), there were a surprising number of empty seats, as often happens in the knock-out stages as fans who expected their team to be there and bought tickets in advance either fail to sell their tickets or just don’t bother showing up.
This didn’t stop FIFA announcing the game as a sell-out, of course.
For ninety-minutes I sat in my New York Red Bulls jersey, cheering for the US (and especially ex Spurs-striker Clint Dempsey), but also supporting current Spurs star Jan Vertonghen for Belgium, who were technically superior to the US but couldn’t quite find a killer pass or shot. US goalie Tim Howard produced a Man of the Match performance to keep out the Belgian opportunities in which he made more saves than any goalkeeper in World Cup history.
And then there was extra time.
Suddenly at the start of the extra 30-minutes, Kevin de Bruyne had scored. Suddenly, Romelu Lukaku, disappointing after his stellar Premier League season on loan at Everton, had made it 2-0 and scored his first World Cup goal. Suddenly, the US looked toothless, so naturally that was when they pulled a goal back, a nicely worked move ending with 19-year-old substitute Brian Green making it 2-1 with two minutes remaining, with his first ever touch of a World Cup ball.
But there was to be no fairy-tale ending, and the better team advanced to face Argentina, (with the full backing of most of Brazil, probably) on Saturday 5th July.
We meandered back to the city, chatting to people from various countries and in various ridiculous clothing; collecting pin-badges from the Volunteers and match-day cups from the ground, (less collectible now as they merely feature the slogan ‘Round of 16’ and not the flags of the teams playing, sadly); attempting to trade jerseys with people who were more interested in selling their unwanted quarter- and semi-final tickets, (not finals tickets, sadly); and generally having a raucous time.
Most excitingly of all, I managed to meet and take photos with an Italian, a Russian, and a pair of Koreans, leaving only five nationalities left to collect in my Pokemon-esque challenge to appear in a picture with a fan from each participating nation. Stay tuned for the final update.
There is only one more match here in Salvador, Holland vs Costa Rica this Saturday, and then I will have to wait another four years for this natural high.
Or go to the Euros in France in 2016.
Or jump on a plane and try to get to a semi-final, and that pesky final for you…
REMEMBER, you can be kept up-to-date with news on the forthcoming BENFICA to BRAZIL BOOK by clicking the link here and sending me your email address!