World Cup

Wednesday 23 July 2014

A great tournament fitting for a great country

Daniel McDonnell

Published 14/07/2014|02:30

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Argentina's fans wait for the start of the 2014 World Cup final soccer match in Brazil between Germany and Argentina, at a public square viewing area in Buenos Aires
Argentina's fans wait for the start of the 2014 World Cup final soccer match in Brazil between Germany and Argentina, at a public square viewing area in Buenos Aires

THE joy of experiencing the exhilaration of this World Cup is only tempered by the realisation that it's all downhill from here. It's going to be hard for any subsequent major tournament to match the magic of Brazil.

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Okay, the Euros in France could have a certain charm and will be a convenient hub for fans from around the continent, but that will lack the unique brand of intense energy that South American sides bring to the mix.

Russia 2018 might surprise a few people but it's not exactly a country that will entice thousands to flock there and replicate the festival-of-football feel that has enhanced this renewal. And Qatar 2022? Let's not go there. Let's hope it doesn't go there.

This felt like the World Cup of our childhood. The football was tremendous, even if the knockout stages struggled to maintain the group-phase momentum, and the drama was enhanced by the infectious stage.

We know the imperfections of this competition and the legacy is uncomfortable. There's an element of guilt attached to reflecting on such a wonderful event without acknowledging the needless spending and the reprehensible aspects of the planning.

Under those headings, Brazil was the wrong choice of host. But it's Brazil that made this tournament great.

This is a mesmerising place, a diverse, complex, maddeningly brilliant country. Here's a few things that this smitten visitor will miss.

THE PEOPLE

It's hard to praise the natives of any country without veering into patronising territory. 'The Irish' should know this better than anyone.

But, trite as it may sound, it's impossible to reflect on over five weeks in these parts without making the warmth of the populace a major highlight. The problem with scare stories before the tournament – the chatter about 'murderous Manaus' and the repeated warnings about personal safety – is that it somehow plants a perception that every stranger should be treated with suspicion.

Sure, there are troubled areas where traumatic things happen and there are central areas where a little common sense can avoid the scourge of petty crime. Such comments can extend to many places.

The Brazilian people have thrown the welcome mat down here and want their guests to be comfortable. In train stations, they spot the lost gringo and point them in the right direction. In restaurants and bars, they are desperate to engage and find out where the strange face hails from.

The language barrier is substantial but in football country it's easy to find common ground. Don't ever let anyone put you off visiting because of safety issues. You'd be missing out on too much for no good reason.

THE TAXIS

The country that gave us Ayrton Senna has spawned a million impersonators. They drive taxis at speed and love nothing more than to change lanes at full throttle, with no distinction between fast and slow lanes. A further complication is that seatbelts are in short supply and treated with a certain degree of suspicion and scorn by the macho wing of the industry.

Admittedly, this isn't exactly a positive attribute, but these renegade characters were seldom boring.

My hairiest driving experience was in Belo Horizonte, with a friendly chap with grey hair who looked a bit like Larry David. He was dispatched to bring this customer from the hotel to a night bus and his English was as bad as my Portuguese.

But he was intent on making friends and at the first traffic light, turned around to offer me a clear-looking drink that most certainly wasn't water. The wise thing to do was to depart but the purpose for escaping would never become lost in translation and, besides, there was luggage in the boot.

Sure enough, he was being powered by something considerably stronger than water as he adeptly demonstrated by departing a motorway and unintentionally riding awkwardly along the kerb all the way up to the entrance. It cost him two flat tyres and a potential customer who watched our pathetic advance with a look of horror.

THE FOOD

The ears told me that the heart and brain were having a heated discussion last week.

Heart: What are you f*****g trying to do to me?

Brain: I know this doesn't make sense, but it's very hard to find a proper meal without mountains of red meat.

Heart: What about some vegetables? I'm struggling here.

Brain: I've tried, but they're only really available in the 'all you can eat' meat restaurants. And they're hardly healthy.

Heart: This is going to cause problems unless you leave here very soon." Unsurprisingly, the biggest cause of death in Brazil is cardiovascular disease. The food is beautifully prepared, but there's a remarkable imbalance in the diet.

Recent figures suggest that the unemployment rate stands at an impressive 4pc from the 200m population. The reasons become clear when you pop out for a simple meal to a quiet restaurant and find a handful of patrons and over a dozen waiters.

On a more serious note, they're not getting paid fortunes and that's why it's ill-advised to tip over the standard 10pc tipping charge. The act of generosity backfires when it prompts a scrap between the army of waiters over who will get their share. Perhaps, that's why Brazil has no real tipping culture.

THE AIRPORTS

Nothing sums up the organised chaos quite like their domestic airports. Again, the recurring theme here is a slightly liberal attitude to personal safety.

It all comes together though. Dublin's Terminal 2 was supposed to make life easier but it's far from customer friendly. Brazil's equivalents turn over greater numbers much more efficiently. Granted, their airlines did behave erratically before the tournament, changing flight schedules at short notice, or simply cancelling routes without any notice at all.

Once the tournament got under way, however, it managed to click into place.

Certain aspects of the experience can be disconcerting. Even if your flight is on schedule, there are no guarantees it will flash up on the board which makes locating a gate a bit of a challenge.

And, while checking in a bag can be a chore, this country is paradise for the passenger with carry-on luggage only. There's no fiddling about with taking out laptops or producing liquids. Just pop off the belt, empty the pockets and send the whole bag through. The 100ml limits are ignored; industrial size tubs of shaving gel and suncream are no inconvenience.

Their American counterparts would recoil in horror at the terminals where it's possible to make it from the front door to departure gate within five minutes but in Brazil they make things work in their own distinctive way.

AND A FEW THINGS THAT WON'T BE MISSED...

THE TRAFFIC

It helps that the people are, in many ways, quite relaxed about timekeeping because the bumper-to-bumper gridlock that is the norm in all major cities would drive the highly strung to emulate Michael Douglas in 'Falling Down' on an almost daily basis.

The citizens of Manaus were promised traffic improvements as part of being a host city. Instead, they were dumped with a white elephant stadium that serves no long-term purpose.

THE POLICE

First-hand experience of cops breaking up a harmless sing-song in Rio's Lapa district with pepper spray opened a window to the over-zealous approach that is raised in ferocity when dealing with any form of dissent.

Amnesty reported that two lawyers were assaulted last week in a Sao Paulo protest that was ironically centred on police brutality. Their constant presence may have reassured tourists but, if you read in the future that police used rubber bullets to break up an angry crowd, don't always assume that the targets were miscreants.

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