Cuiaba, Brazil – Three years ago I made the decision.
Once in a lifetime, a true soccer fan has to attend the World Cup, the Holy Grail of the sport.
The timing was perfect: I was in my mid-forties, football-crazed Brazil was the next host of the event, and I had no desire to go to neither Russia in 2018 nor Qatar in 2022. It was now or never.
First, my wife opened a bank savings account for me. Then I announced to all my friends and family the following: for the next three years, I needed no birthday gifts, no holiday gifts, no treats, books or new socks. I wanted money for my trip. As little or big, whatever the contribution was, I would be happy. The project had begun.
Well, I made it. (More or less, still need to save a bit more money after the games...).
Flying Tel Aviv to London five-and-a-half hours.
London to Sao Paolo, 12 hours (the flight left 10 minutes late so the fans can watch the end of the game at Heathrow Airport, just to see Suarez scoring and England losing). Then to Brazilia 90 minutes, followed by another two hours to Cuiaba.
You do the math. Lots of hours talking and thinking football. At the end we made it safe and sound.
Everywhere you go, especially at the airports, you meet fans, dressed with the national team’s jersey, wearing funny hats, plastic glasses, scarfs, some with their face painted.
Overall, its a good atmosphere, with plenty of singing and dancing.
Everyone has a story. On the flight I sat next to a guy wearing a Nigeria shirt. He is in fact from Edmonton, Canada, his father emigrated from Nigeria 19 years ago. Then a group of Uruguayan fans who were delighted after their team’s win over England. One happy Columbian couple and a bunch of guys from Japan.
All with one thing in mind, just happy to be there happy and surprisingly relaxed.
The weird thing for the locals here is that most games are played in the middle of the day – presumably in order to accommodate television viewers around the world. So here in Cuiaba and Manaus games are played at noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m., a bit early for the working people.
And most of the locals are busy with their lives anyways. Cuiaba is a mix of poor working class next to the emerging Brazilian economy we keep hearing about. High-rises next to cheap car shops, fancy shopping malls but with rundown filthy bus stops outside it.
Most people I met so far know very little English.
The taxi driver, the coffee shop cashier, even the girls working at the hotel, can barely communicate.
But one way or another, I mix my knowledge of Italian and French with some Spanish words and everything I managed to learn from my Portuguese phrase book, and we all get along.
Brazil MUST make it to the next round in order for the festivities to continue. But then again everyone seems to be having a great time.
At the Bosnia-Nigeria game, the vast majority of spectators were local Brazilians. All dressed up with Brazil Jerseys and very welcoming of the “two other teams” who came to play in town, as one of the locals told me. Our section was filled with families who came to have a fun afternoon, kids and grandmothers with face painting and shiny necklaces.
Brazil is celebrating.
DAY 3: Before leaving Israel, I read a lot about the protests in the streets of Brazil against the money spent on the World Cup as opposed to say, schools and infrastructure.
Then I read about the race against time to get all the stadiums finished and ready for inspection (they were still painting some walls at the Brazilia airport when I went through it). There was also coverage of the allegations of corruption by FIFA and its leaders.
Some of these issues were real. It was as if the World Cup kicked off against a backdrop of troubles.
But once the games started, the world was watching, and we all got very excited. And that is the thing: corruption or not, football remains as popular as ever, and the World Cup brings people together like nothing else.
Look at me and how far I traveled just to enjoy this treat. I am an Israeli with a dual French nationality, in Brazil, tremendously enjoying a game that features Nigerians against Bosnians, while sitting next to a group of England fans and a Canadian.
Did I mention that I also have American citizenship? So far I have not seen any anger, or yelling, or fighting. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most fans, overwhelmingly Brazilians, are orderly and disciplined.
They seem to be randomly picking one of the teams which came to town and root for that county.
Our host bought a Chilean flag to take to the stadium for the first game, then a Nigerian one, and next he plans to buy one of Honduras for the last game. How does he pick a side? “Just like that”.
What will he do with the flags after the tournament? “Not sure”.
Ok, so of course there is some world politics.
We went to a Saturday-morning kids-friendly outdoor brunch diner. Lots of people, TV screens everywhere. Argentina was playing Iran. No Brazilian will root for arch-rival Argentina. No Argentinian will dare coming in wearing the famous blue-andwhite striped shirt.
So there I was, an Israeli rooting and yelling for Iran.
For a few hours I was willing to ignore their nuclear desires if they could just beat Argentina (Alas, they did not).
They could have as many atomic bombs as they like, just don’t let Messi score (of course, he did).
After all, I’m sure that the Iranians, like us the Israelis, we all just want to live in peace and play football, right? From the rivers of Persia, to the Mediterranean Ocean, to the Amazons, we just want to relax and enjoy the beautiful game.
The author is an editor at The Jerusalem Post who is in Brazil to fulfill his life-long dream of attending the World Cup.