Photo by Kieran McManus/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SALVADOR, Brazil — The group stage was over, but the experience of a lifetime continued.
After making it to the airport in Recife and booking our flights to Salvador, Ives and I took a red-eye flight back to Sao Paulo on Friday. We were pretty tired and hungry when we landed, but somehow we made it through the ridiculous Sao Paulo traffic and back to our hotel in time to have the decent breakfast it offered.
That afternoon, and without sleeping any more than the three hours we got on the plane, we joined our group of colleagues and headed to Sao Paulo FC’s pretty cool practice facility. We did some work, conducted some interviews, wrote a few stories and saw Jozy Altidore continue to jog around as he attempted to recover from injury. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel and worked some more.
We were so exhausted that we didn’t even plan to have dinner or do anything despite it being a Friday night in Sao Paulo. I actually began watching the New York Red Bulls-Toronto FC game from the media room in our hotel via a stream I found – sh, don’t tell anyone – and planned on having a quiet night.
Those plans changed at halftime. As I headed for a bathroom break at halftime, I ran into a handful of colleagues who were planning on going to explore one of the more happening spots nearby. Nothing too crazy, they said, but maybe a beer or two while we walked around. I changed quickly and went with them to Vila Madalena, which I realized quickly was going to provide me with anything but a quiet night.
The best way to put what I saw upon arriving there was a sea of people; think of a large New York City block party that stretches over a few dozen blocks. The happy-go-lucky locals literally filled the streets by the thousands just to enjoy an adult beverage or two – which were sold by locals with rolling stands that had everything from the light-tasting local beers Brahma and Skol to shots of vodka or whiskey – and talk. It was a remarkable sight and I’m pretty upset at myself for not snapping a picture of this to show here. Epic fail.
There were clubs, bars and restaurants off to the sides and there were people who headed there. For the most part, however, everyone stayed on the streets and enjoyed the vibe. There were some foreign soccer fans sprinkled in, which made the experience even that much cooler. This was definitely one of the best and most memorable moments of my time in Brazil thus far.
The following morning, the contingent of American media returned to Sao Paulo FC’s practice facility. We began conducting interviews during the intense Brazil-Chile quarterfinals match – some reporters couldn’t focus during Omar Gonzalez’s sitdown, especially when Chile hit the post late – but they were halted briefly so as to let everyone watch the penalty shootout. Jurgen Klinsmann, sitting among media members in the press conference room, was especially entertaining to watch over the course of the 10 spot kicks because of his reactions.
Saturday night was pretty uneventful aside from the fact that Ives, ESPN’s Doug McIntyre and I headed back to the Churrascaria for some more delicious Brazilian BBQ. We pigged out – an unappetizing photo of my leftovers is below – and then went off to bed.
Sunday consisted of writing, watching games and not much else. Almost all the reporters had a flight to beach-side Salvador early the next morning, so it was a pretty chill day.
The actual flight to Salvador was fairly quick and easy, and the tropical city that Freddy Adu briefly called home was amazing. It helped that the weather held up unlike in fellow northeastern cities Natal and Recife, but even rain was unlikely to change the majority of the reporters’ minds about this being the best city they had visited during the taxing few weeks in Brazil. I have to agree with that sentiment, though I have fond memories of Natal thanks to my previously-mentioned friendly encounter with a local.
Ives and I once again decided to go to the Night-Before party since we knew it could be the final one down in Brazil, and once again we had a good time. The vibe at this one wasn’t as rocking as the group stage ones for a number of reasons, including that many fans had left after the group stages and this party was held at a large venue that had sizable indoor and outdoor areas. Still, it was another entertaining night.
The next morning we woke up and headed off to the stadium via one of the official FIFA Media Shuttles. The ride was quite long due to traffic, but we didn’t mind it as we rode along the coast for much of the trip and had stunning views of the lovely beaches.
We arrived to Arena Fonte Nova hours before the U.S. Men’s National Team was set to take on Belgium, settled in and watched Switzerland push Argentina to the brink of penalty kicks before Angel Di Maria broke the Swiss’ hearts with an 118th-minute tally. The goal itself actually sent several of the international media members in the stadium’s Media Center into a fiery cheer, a quite common occurrence during our stay at this World Cup.
Eventually, we settled into the press tribune and I could tell right away that there would not be as many U.S. supporters as had been present in the group-stage games. That is not to say that the ones who were in attendance did not make their presences felt – they absolutely did and were quite boisterous throughout and after the 120 minutes – but it was obvious that there were more Brazil jersey-wearing neutrals in attendance than in previous games.
The game itself was not the one many U.S. fans had hoped for or expected. The Americans were outgunned for much of the 90 minutes of regulation, but Tim Howard put in one of the more memorable performances of the tournament by making 16 saves. I honestly kept thinking he could not keep up the SuperMan-like effort after stopping the first few close-range shots, but he did over and over again. It was truly remarkable stuff from a truly remarkable player.
Howard’s Herculean showing forced extra time, but Belgium scored twice in the added first half. The World Cup seemed all but over for the Americans and several of us reporters wondered aloud why Klinsmann was taking so long to make a third substitution. But when Julian Green hit a shot that seemed to go in slow motion into the back of the net in the 117th minute, things changed. The U.S. had life and a chance to keep its run in the tournament going.
Alas, it was not to be for the Americans and the 2-1 loss ended their journey in Brazil. Ives and I, however, will keep going a little while longer.
SBI 2014 WORLD CUP DIARY