Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
NATAL, Brazil — There was traffic to the Sao Paulo ariport that would make Los Angeles citizens grateful for theirs, torrential downpours and a stomach bug that wiped out Ives for a day.
All that still could not stop us from having an amazing time in Natal.
Ives and I arrived in the northeastern Brazilian beach city early on Saturday morning and we made our way to our rundown hotel – more on that later – via a taxi that took us along the coast. It was not raining at the time and there was a hope from both of us that the forecast would prove incorrect and we could go to the beach.
Those hopes were washed away rather quickly like the sand on the shore. After checking into our less-than-glamorous hotel that served a breakfast that could best be described as subpar, the rain began to fall hard. Our plans of going to the highly-touted beach were put on hold, and then Ives got sick.
We’re not sure if it was the breakfast’s powdered “scrambled eggs” that looked more like yellow pebbles or the chopped up sausage or something else, but Ives was wiped out for all of Saturday. I actually had to go to the nearby convenience store in the pouring rain – which leaked through several parts of the roof at our hotel, though thankfully not in our room – at one point to get him some Gatorade and water because of how bad he felt.
The first day in Natal was shaping up to be forgettable, but then I ran into the hero of the day, a U.S. Men’s National Team fan named Joe, at our hotel. He was from North Carolina and looking to go out to explore Natal even in the midst of the storm. I knew Ives was feeling better but still in need of rest, so I decided to join Joe.
We wound up taking a cab to a strip of outdoor bars nearby – where the rain again dripped through the roofs and into towels and buckets placed by employees – and ran into several U.S. fans, who like us were getting soaked but still trying to have some fun on one of their few nights in Natal. Eventually and coincidentally, I ran into a U.S. fan named Brian who I’ve hung out with in the past. He was with a group of four friends, and the six of us decided to go to an indoor lounge nearby where there were even more drenched U.S. fans and lots of locals. Needless to say, we had a good time. A very good time.
The next day consisted of lots more work than Saturday when the U.S. had no availability, but there was also some fun and surprisingly no rain. Ives, feeling better, and I had dinner at a restaurant near our hotel during the Argentina-Bosnia and Herzegovina game, and there was a pack of rowdy Argentines there taking their jerseys off, singing and chanting throughout the albiceleste’s 2-1 win.
Team SBI then headed for the Night-Before party, which the American Outlaws typically throw at a bar but was done on a much grander scale this time thanks to U.S. Soccer turning an old car dealership into the party hub for U.S. fans.
There were strobe lights everywhere, bars where you could purchase decently-priced drinks, a big stage and dance-floor that made for a concert-like feel – one woman even crowd surfed at one point – and smiles all around. Everyone was having a good time, especially when the DJs on stage would take a break from playing music to amp up the crowd with a variety of U.S. chants.
The party lasted only until midnight, but the vibe carried over to game-day. The weather held up again, and U.S. fans traveled in numbers to enjoy a run or swim on the beach. I got a chance to take a quick stroll before heading off to the stadium, and can say with no hesitation that the beach was gorgeous.
The sand was soft, the water’s temperature was near-perfect, and the backdrop looked like a scene taken from Game of Thrones. It was definitely one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever been on, and I’ve been to my fair share having been born and raised in South Florida.
After enjoying as much of it as I could, I changed, packed and headed to Arena das Dunas on a bus ride that was annoyingly longer than it needed to be. The bus driver passed the stadium and went quite far before turning around and getting all of the aggravated passengers to the stadium.
From the outside, Arena das Dunas was marvelous but the inside was arguably even better. The yet-to-be-filled blue seats gave it a bit of a Red Bull Arena-look, and the field was in perfect condition after two days of no rain.
The Americans, Ghanaians, Brazilians and bevy of other soccer fans filled the stadium, and the atmosphere was electric 60 minutes before kickoff. I tried to immerse myself in and enjoy as much of it as I could since it was my first time covering a U.S. World Cup match, but work had to be done.
The match itself, needless to say, was entertaining. The U.S. got off to a dream start then was on the back foot. Still, the deafening sound of the pro-U.S. crowd chanting “I Believe” and “U-S-A” in a stadium in Brazil was incredible and definitely memorable.
You could get a sense of the passion and goosebumps that the both teams’ fans felt throughout the roller-coaster 90 minutes, the U.S. ultimately prevailing on a late header from unlikely hero John Brooks. But well after the match, you could also feel and see their exhaustion.
We made our way to Natal’s airport a few hours after the game, and there were hordes of U.S. fans there. Most were either grabbing a midnight snack or passed out on the chairs and floors while waiting for the flights to their next destinations.
Natal had provided quite the experience for all, myself included, but it was time to close that chapter and get some much-needed rest.
SBI 2014 WORLD CUP DIARY