Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
MANAUS, Brazil — From concrete jungle to actual jungle.
After leaving beautiful Natal last Tuesday, Ives and I returned to busy Sao Paulo to cover the U.S. Men’s National Team as it prepared for the World Cup match in the Amazon against Portugal. The four days we spent back in the southern city mostly consisted of work, but there were a few highlights before heading off to Manaus on Friday night.
The first one was the churrascaria we went to on Tuesday night with a giant group of colleagues. If you’re unfamiliar with what a churrascaria is, just think of it as a restaurant that serves an endless and wide variety of meats cooked on a barbecue grill.
No kidding on the endless part. Not only was it all you can eat – and, man, did we eat – but the servers who offered and cut the meats came at a dizzying pace so as to ensure you got full as quickly as possible. You could say no, of course, and we did to the little chicken hearts when they came around. But there were just so many delicious-looking options that we chowed down on, including sirloin steak, chicken, Calabrese sausage and pork ribs.
Wednesday and Thursday were all about work, but the latter provided for some real chilly weather – it is winter in Brazil, after all – and a great sporting spectacle. Ives, a few other reporters and I made our ways back to Arena de Sao Paulo for the England-Uruguay match. Luis Suarez lifted Uruguay to a 2-1 win that eliminated England, but just as impressive as his performance was that of the Uruguayan fans. They were boisterous throughout and drowned out England’s supporters for much of the match.
After some more work on Friday morning and afternoon, it was off to Manaus.
I had not taken any medication or vaccinations prior to flying to the Amazon and wasn’t really too worried about picking up any viruses because the trip there was quick. Ives and I arrived on Friday night and left on Sunday night not long after the U.S.-Portugal game, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Since we got to Manaus when it was dark, the only first impression I really got was how humid it was. I love warm weather, though, so I didn’t mind it one bit – not even during a midnight walk to an overpriced McDonald’s that was two blocks from our ant-infested hotel.
The next morning we saw just how lush Manaus really is, a stark contrast to the industrial and largely gray Sao Paulo. There were lots of trees and vegetation, and it seemed like a place worth exploring even in the midst of its hot “winter” temperatures.
Ives and I arrived at the stadium via a very bumpy bus ride that at times had me flying out of my seat and into the air. Give me a break and spare the jokes, I’m 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds.
After getting to the gorgeous stadium that is Arena Amazonia and getting our work done, we had dinner at a restaurant that neighbored our hotel. It – like another place we ate at one night in Sao Paulo – had surprisingly good pizza. We didn’t think Brazilians knew how to make a good pie prior to this trip, but we learned our lesson and are likely to eat pizza again before this World Cup ends. It’s that good.
Once we finished eating, we headed off to the Night-Before party that U.S. Soccer threw. Like the one in Natal, it had a concert-like feel but was in a location that was much more enclosed. We ran into some familiar and new faces and enjoyed the festive vibe. Everyone was ready and pumped for the game on Sunday.
Sunday was another hot day and again we endured another bumpy ride to the stadium after leaving our hotel in the morning. We worked in FIFA’s makeshift media center – where the wifi is gloriously stable unlike the rest of Brazil and food is overpriced and mediocre – next to the stadium for a bit before heading to our seats in the press tribune an hour before kickoff.
The scene from where I was sitting was magnificent, but I could tell pretty quickly that there would be more Portuguese fans at this match than there were Ghana supporters in the U.S.’s World Cup opener in Natal. At one point during warm-ups, the large and respectful contingent of U.S. fans started chanting”U-S-A” loudly and Portugal’s fans responded with an even more boisterous shout of “Por-tu-gal”.
I could tell a fun match was in store.
Portugal got on the scoreboard early and every time Cristiano Ronaldo touched the ball his fans would shriek and shout. But the U.S. limited his touches and bossed possession for large stretches, forcing the Portuguese to defend at times with all 11 players behind the ball in their own half. It was quite the sight to see.
Ultimately, the Americans dug deep and found a way to get back into the match through a Jermaine Jones bullet that sent the U.S. fans in attendance into a frenzy. Clint Dempsey then made it 2-1 and the American supporters that had not stopped chanting all game were in pure bliss. That is, until Ronaldo hit a ball that Varela nodded home in the final seconds.
That play sucked the life out of much of the stadium and left U.S. fans and writers working on deadline – myself included – frustrated. Still, the match had been entertaining and one that those who attended will not soon forget.
After leaving the nicely-lit stadium that night and arriving at the airport that was filled with emotionally and physically-exhausted U.S. fans, Ives and I boarded a red-eye flight to Recife for the next U.S. game.
The Amazon excursion was complete. Up next? A four-day trip to the beach ahead of U.S.-Germany in Recife.
SBI 2014 WORLD CUP DIARY