My week in Brazil to follow the World Cup has brought on a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The symptom is a recurrent fear that I will lose my tickets to the two matches that I have come to see. To minimise this possibility, I have bought myself some cargo pants with button-down pockets – and carry the tickets with me at all times. Even so, I find myself patting my leg every few minutes – just to check that they have not somehow flown away.
Finally, on Monday, I made it safely into the ground to see the France-Nigeria game. In the stands, I was reflecting on the irrationality of my ticket-loss obsession when I got talking to a mournful-looking woman in the seat next to me. It turned out that she was the living embodiment of my fears. She had arrived at the stadium with her nephew – only to find that he had lost his ticket to the match, as well as a pair of tickets to the semi-final.
The France-Nigeria game was an odd affair because I would say that 90 per cent of the crowd was neutral. I am sure the television cameras will have focused on the Nigeria fans, to provide some atmosphere – but, in truth, there were only about 300 of them, packed into a tiny corner of a stadium that holds almost 70,000. There were enough French fans to belt out a stirring rendition of “La Marseillaise”. But even they were scattered in small pockets around the stadium.
Something about the World Cup also seems to persuade many fans – even neutrals – that it is a good idea to turn up in national costume. One of the French supporters in my row was wearing a beret, munching a baguette and sporting a moustache that looked like it had been corked on. Behind him, there was a pair of Germans in lederhosen. Some England fans seem to like dressing up as crusaders and wearing chain-mail, which seems both excessively backward-looking and unsuitable for the Brazilian climate. Even bowler hats would be an improvement.
While I chose not to embarrass my son and travelling companion by wearing national costume to the match, I did inadvertently appal them by looking as if I might dance, when the stadium sound-system put on “Get Lucky”. To forestall this horrifying possibility, my son grabbed me by the arm – knocking my BlackBerry from my hand, and sending it skittering down the stand.
As for the Brazilians, they all seem to be wearing the yellow jersey of the national team – many with the number 10 and the name Neymar Jr emblazoned on the back. The pressure on 22-year-old Neymar, who is clearly Brazil’s best player and also looks like a member of a boy band, must be close to unbearable.
His face is everywhere. It smiled at me from the screen of the cashpoint as I withdrew money at São Paulo airport. It seemed to be on most of the billboards lining the road from the airport. It was even painted on the sliding doors of my hotel.
When we went for a walk in São Paulo’s gorgeous Ibirapuera park, on the morning of the Brazil-Chile game, I spotted a labrador – out for its morning constitutional – and clad in a makeshift Neymar jersey. When we watched the match in a bar in São Paulo that afternoon, there were shrieks of hope every time the ball came Neymar’s way. When Brazil squeaked through on penalties, the relief and joy in the crowd was palpable. The big screen showed many of the team weeping – like men who had just been granted a reprieve from execution.
I applied for tickets at venues all over Brazil – but, in the event, the two matches I got were both in the capital, Brasília. I suspect that is because the stadium there is particularly large, and the city is far less glamorous than the beachside venues such as Rio and Fortaleza.
I could, however, see one bright side, which is that a friend of mine, Alex Ellis, is currently serving as British ambassador in Brazil. As soon as I received news of my ticket allocation, last year, I had emailed Alex, ending my note with a cheery – “See you next year”. I received a note back, saying – “Gideon, I am becoming very familiar with this euphemism, which means, ‘I would like to stay in your house’.”
Alex pointed out that many other diplomats, dignitaries, friends and freeloaders seemed to be harbouring similar hopes. But, as it happened, by the time I arrived in Brazil, England had been eliminated and Prince Harry’s royal visit had come to a close – so I was able to spend a couple of nights at the embassy after all. Brasília is a planned city, whose creators seem to have been inspired either by utopian novels or by the Babar books. The buildings are separated by functions – there is a hotel sector, an administrative sector, a commercial sector and an embassy sector. Since undiplomatic people are not allowed to live in the embassy area, it is one of the quietest and greenest spots in any Brazilian city.
If you buy tickets at random, before the draw is made, you just have to hope you end up with good matches. In my case, somebody up there seems to be under the impression that I am Argentine. This is the fifth World Cup I have gone to, and I have never yet been allocated an England game. But I saw Argentina play in 2006 and 2010 – and I will be seeing them again soon, since my second and last match will be the quarter-final between Argentina and Belgium. I will be rooting for the Belgians. This is partly because I have fond memories of living in Brussels, and partly because I put a bet on Belgium to win the World Cup more than two years ago, when they were still 60-1. The Belges will certainly need all the backing they can get, since some 30,000 Argentines are expected to descend on Brasília for the game. It should be a fantastic match – and my son and I are looking forward to it, always assuming that I haven’t lost our tickets by then.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator
Illustration: Shonagh Rae