It's the Rio thing, even with no ticket
Ruaidhri O'Connor spent four days soaking up the atmosphere in Rio de Janeiro this week and, while he didn't manage to see any live football, the experience was just the ticket
THE Maracana loomed large on the horizon but for the collection of increasingly desperate ticket hunters standing underneath an underpass by the side of a motorway this was as close at it would get.
World Cup tickets are the most valuable commodity in Rio de Janeiro right now and arriving in the vibrant Brazilian city without them is a mistake, as I found to my cost.
Twice, I stood 10 minutes' walk from the stadium and twice I left disappointed. I had belatedly tagged on a four-day trip at the end of the Irish rugby team's summer tour to Argentina and all avenues explored beforehand had come up short.
I travelled in hope but left in exasperation. On Wednesday I took the Metro to the stadium with hundreds of jubilant Chileans, who chanted their way to a victory over Spain they would never forget.
As they marched off the train and into the stadium, they hardly noticed the collection of people standing at the bottom of the ramp, desperately searching for their golden ticket from the small number of touts looking for more than $1,000 (€736).
But, while you might think a trip to the World Cup that didn't include a match would be considered a disappointment, another crowd scene helps explain why this was four days to remember.
The iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer sits on a small platform on the top of the Corcovado Mountain and last Monday it was heaving with football fans decked out in their country's colours and fighting for room to get their shot with the big man.
The aforementioned Chileans were in fine voice, chanting their catchy 'Chi, Chi Chi! le, le, le! Viva Chile!' cry, while the Argentineans were also there in big numbers after their opening win the night before. They were joined from people from all over the world, posing for pictures and singing songs.
While it was the most striking moment, different versions of that scene were repeated all over the city.
Later that night, I joined my colleague Daniel McDonnell in the lively Lapa district. As he recounted in a blog on independent.ie this week, the night was going well until we ended up being pepper-sprayed by the local police as the street party got a little out of hand.
The short version of the story is that the Chileans and the Argentineans were chanting back and forth over the road, with the Chileans taunting their neighbours about their poor showing in the Falklands War, while the Argentineans retorted with songs about General Pinochet.
Encouraged by a television crew, the fans danced into the street. While the songs had an edge, the atmosphere didn't.
It was brilliant to watch and didn't feel in the least bit threatening, but it had stopped traffic on the thoroughfare, inspiring the police to step in and, before we knew it, we couldn't watch anything anymore for a few minutes.
The police were everywhere in the city, at once a reassuring and threatening presence. Beside my apartment in the Catete district lay the Santa Marta Favela (slum).
My host told me it was very peaceful, but there was an armed security presence at the foot of the steps into it all week, while the massive armed vans transporting the law enforcers around looked better suited to Iraq.
Everyone travelling to Brazil is warned to be wary of crime but while visible poverty is ever-present, the streets never felt threatening – apart from the police's two-footed-tackle approach to crowd control.
Likewise, apart from some anti-FIFA graffiti, there was little visible sign of the social unrest that had dominated the build-up.
If the taste of Mace is something I'll always associate with Rio, then so is the sound of the South Americans singing.
This is undoubtedly their World Cup. While their teams are making strides on the pitch, off it their fans are something to behold as they seized the chance of attending the tournament on their doorstep.
Many of the Chileans made the almost 4,000km journey by car, while the Argentineans have moved en masse across the border.
I travelled with a plane full of them on Sunday, with my 5am flight erupting into song when it touched down on Brazilian soil.
Hoping to watch Lionel Messi and Co, I made my first unsuccessful trip to the Maracana that night. Warned by my hugely concerned taxi driver that I was a walking advertisement for a mugging, I found I was not alone beneath the underpass.
A pair of brothers from Mayo had been on the hunt for an hour before I arrived, while a guy from Louisiana talked me through how the market worked.
Unfortunately, the prices never reached affordable levels and I heard the roar that greeted Argentina's opening goal from the train station as I headed back towards home and caught the rest of the match in a stuffy restaurant where the team of waiters gave grudging approval of Messi's talents when he scored his brilliant goal.
All was not lost; I'd be back three days later with a bit more cash and the knowledge that comes with experience.
However, a scout around the thronged Copacabana beach proved fruitless, while the underpass was again thronged with ticketless people and not many sellers.
The closest I came to getting was a deal for around €350 with a Liverpudlian who told me to follow him through the security barriers.
He put his phone to his ear and sailed clear of the line of Robocopesque police, but I was asked to show a ticket and lost him. He headed up the ramp to the stadium and never looked back.
Whether he ever had the ticket is debatable, but I'm not sure I'll ever understand what happened.
So, it was back to Catete where I watched the second half from my 'mezzanine' apartment. I'd booked it on AirBnB not quite understanding that it would entail going up and down a near 7ft ladder to get in and out of bed.
Not being particularly nimble, it made for great fun after a couple of Caprinhas, particularly given the marble floor wouldn't make for much of a landing.
The view was worth it though as each day I awoke to the sight of the stunning Sugar Loaf mountain that looms large over the city.
Early Wednesday morning I beat the crowds and took the cable car up to the top where Bosnians sang as a group of Ipswich fans excitedly looked for a picture with the Colombian flag, only to be politely informed by the Ecuadorians carrying it that their geography was a little off.
The previous day, I had watched the Brazilians watch their team draw disappointingly with Mexico outside a bar in Lapa.
Despite the result, the party continued in the regenerated district known for its nightlife, but while the hosts are determined to enjoy their World Cup, they are not fully convinced by their team's credentials.
The rain teemed down on the day of my departure, but conveniently the morning had been earmarked for shopping.
Unfortunately, Thursday was the feast of Corpus Christi, a national holiday, and the shops were all closed, much to the chagrin of the tourists who flocked to the shopping centres to avoid the rain and ended up walking around staring at shutters.
So, I got to the airport early to catch the England v Uruguay game, but the only television in Rio's gloomy international airport was to be found in the Duty Free where English fans gathered to watch their side lose to Uruguay as shoppers browsed for booze.
It was a surreal place for their World Cup to end.
Like them, I was headed home having suffered defeat – on the ticket front – but the unforgettable atmosphere around Rio had more than cushioned the blow.