Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SAO PAULO — Air horns were blaring, chants were loudly sung, jerseys from all different countries could be seen in every direction, and there was an evident joy among the droves of people.
It was a Friday night. At an airport.
The World Cup is in full throttle in Brazil right now and the festive scene that I saw at Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo last night depicted that perfectly. It did not come as much of a surprise given that the race for soccer’s holy grail had begun in a country that loves few things more than this sport, but it was a stark comparison to just a few days earlier when Ives and I arrived and there seemed to be no real vibe towards the tournament in the southern city.
Yes, there were plenty of signs and reminders that the World Cup was being held here from the moment the plane we took nonstop from Newark, New Jersey touched down on Wednesday morning. There were numerous billboards from tournament sponsors on the way out of the airport, a Brazilian soccer player on seemingly every other advertisement – Neymar is on the most recent Vogue Brazil magazine, a shirtless Oscar is on a Calvin Klein ad that is commonly seen and a cardboard cutout of Thiago Silva that greets you at some of TAM Airlines’ checkpoints - and extremely tight security near and at the U.S. Men’s National Team’s homebase at Sao Paulo FC’s training facility.
Still, the party atmosphere and World Cup fever I was expecting was largely missing from the industrious downtown Sao Paulo. There were plenty of Brazil jerseys being worn by both males and females – they are sported with a frequency and casualness that is admittedly cool to see – but not much hype or energy. People continued about their days and lives as if the prestigious tournament was still weeks away or being held elsewhere. Maybe it was my lack of World Cup experience – this is my first time covering one, after all – but it was honestly a bit surprising.
That all changed on Thursday once the World Cup festivities officially began.
Brazilians were up early to party and root for their team, and filled the streets on the declared national holiday in the yellow jerseys that are recognizable worldwide. The locals chanted, cheered and made their ways to the tournament opener at the glorious Arena de Sao Paulo, where there were several checkpoints and plenty of military personnel on hand to keep things under control.
The zigzagging walk to the stadium from the nearby train station stop was a long one, but the buzz from all the soccer aficionados made it enjoyable. The customary happy-go-lucky energy the Brazilians exuded was especially infectious and the number of selfies being taken ahead of the momentous and memorable occasion would have put high school students to shame.
Once inside the stadium and past the congested media center that was filled by hundreds (thousands?) of media members from around the world, there was a view of the field from the press tribune that was equal parts humbling, exciting and breathtaking. The World Cup was just minutes away.
First, however, was the pre-game ceremony. It was fun and so too was the “We Are One” performance from Pitbull, JLo and Claudia Leitte that injected some life into the 62,000-plus fans in attendance. But nothing compared to game itself.
The Brazilians in the stands provided an electric atmosphere from start to finish, even after Croatia went up through an early own goal from Marcelo, and they let out a giant roar after every half-chance that their star-studded Selecao had.
When Neymar pulled level in the 29th minute, the scenes were simply stunning. Not only were the Brazilians inside of the stadium celebrating ferociously, but off in the distance you could see dozens of fireworks being let off in the nearby towns. It was a sensational and pressure-relieving moment for the country that will likely consider this World Cup a failure unless it wins its record sixth title.
Neymar gave Brazil the lead on a controversial penalty kick in the second half a bevy of anticipating camera flashes, and Oscar put the entertaining affair to sleep with a late strike that assured locals that they could spend the night partying.
All in all, Brazil’s 3-1 win was an enjoyable and memorable sporting spectacle. It was also what officially kicked the World Cup feeling in the country out of neutral and into high gear.
I can’t wait to see what’s next.