Chris Gibbons: Obrigado, Brasil
And so, after almost three weeks, six games and four cites, our World Cup journey has sadly come an end.
After witnessing that rarest of events, a forgettable France-Germany World Cup clash at the magnificent Maracanã, we finished on a night of high drama on Saturday in Salvador as Costa Rica pushed mighty Holland to the limit before going out on penalties.
The nonstop singing of Los Ticos, even in the cruellest of defeats, was one of the many great memories that we’ll bring home from Brazil. A messy and chaotic country, Brazil is still an unforgettable experience on so many levels.
On balance, there was a lot less to fear than we were led to believe. We were generally more at risk from suspect food and suicidal Brazilian driving (Brazilians seem to regard any red light — especially the brake lights of the driver in front — as a personal affront) than we were from rioters, pickpockets or muggers. As in any big city, you needed to be sure of your surroundings and not take unnecessary risks, but the openness and generosity of Brazilians was a constant reassurance.
The only trouble I witnessed was among a couple of drunken England supporters at the Uruguay game and rival Brazilian club fans attempting to get at each other in the Maracanã before they were separated by a phalanx of stewards.
Given the clearly unfinished state of some stadium areas and facilities, the security and organisation was generally good, if worryingly lax at times. The occasional pitch invader was allowed to run free for several minutes before stewards even attempted to catch them; fans were frequently directed to wrong seating sections (at one point in the England-Uruguay game, there were eight of us standing where four should have been seated); and it was not unusual for Brazilian fans to come up to us during a game and ask if the seat next to us was taken! Whether they had somehow got in without tickets or just fancied a better seat was not clear.
And yet, at other times, Brazil could be irritatingly authoritarian and petty-minded. In Rio, a friend was ticketed and fined for stubbing a cigarette out on a Copacabana sidewalk. The high-profile Brazilian campaign about child sex exploitation is admirable — I needed a notarised letter of consent from my wife to be allowed to book into some hotels with my 11-year-old son, Toby — but requiring passport ID as proof that he was my son to play a target-kicking game in one of the Fifa Fan Fests seemed a little excessive.
But what we will remember most is simply watching a World Cup in a country that arguably loves football with a passion like no other. Just watching Brazilian games in a café was to be wired into the collective nervous system of a whole nation.
The Belgium-United States and Holland-Costa Rica games were as tense and thrilling as any I have witnessed in my previous four World Cups. Salvador, with its pulsating African heritage and culture, rivalled Cape Town as one of my favourite football venues.
What was also unforgettable, though, was seeing the World Cup through the wide eyes of Toby, experiencing it all for the first time, so I will leave you with some of his memories:
“It was a lot of fun. My favourite place was Rio and playing football on the beach because it was so cool to play with people from so many different countries. I really liked going to the Maracanã and seeing Germany beat France. It was huge and so different to the other stadiums in the way it looked and was set up, and the history of it.
“In Brazil it is incredible. When Brazil plays because everything shuts down to watch the game and when they win, it is pandemonium.
“When we saw England play, it was amazing. The fans were great and sang lots of songs, even in the last game (against Costa Rica) when they were out.”
Like all of us privileged to have been here these past few weeks, he will remember this trip for a lifetime.
Chris Gibbons is a former Sports Editor of the Mid-Ocean News and Deputy Sports Editor of The Royal Gazette