SAO PAULO -- The World Cup is seven days old, and I am pleased to report I have felt safe, have not been robbed, have made it to every stadium with time to spare, have not had any travel interrupted by labor strikes, have not personally encountered any protests other than some R-rated anti-FIFA graffiti and have found the Brazilian people to be universally warm, friendly and helpful.
OK, so the Sao Paulo traffic is unbearable and the wi-fi is spotty, but the pineapples and papayas here are out of this world. The music is beautiful. The salad bars and grilled meats divine. The shrimp and beaches in Natal worth a side trip.
And you have to love a country that allows leashed dogs in many of its fanciest shopping malls, and is so kid-friendly that some nice restaurants feature play areas so parents can dine in peace.
As for the tournament itself, does it get any better? The matches have been action-packed with goals aplenty and made-for-TV drama. Any concern that Brazilian heat and humidity would slow down the pace of play have been thrown out the window, as teams are attacking and counterattacking at full tempo as if they were in the knockout round.
There have been enough breathtaking goals through Week 1 to fill a highlight show. I have watched that Van Persie header over and over, and am still not tired of it. Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa’s performance in goal for Mexico’s 0-0 tie with Brazil was spectacular. And Clint Dempsey’s goal in the 30th second against Ghana was unforgettable.
The best teams so far have been the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Chile, which impressed again Wednesday with a 2-0 win over the “other” La Roja in this tournament, Spain. Speaking of the defending champions, who would have predicted that they would be outscored 7-1 through two matches and in last place in Group B —behind Netherlands, Chile, and Australia — with no chance to advance?
(Actually, one person I know did predict that. Fort Lauderdale Strikers president Tom Mulroy predicted before the tournament that Spain wouldn’t survive the group, that Netherlands would win the trophy, and that Japan would make the final. I laughed. So far, he’s looking good on two out of three.)
CONCACAF is surely gaining respect so far with opening wins by Mexico, the United States and Costa Rica. Few would have predicted that Los Ticos of Costa Rica would be ahead of England and Uruguay heading into their second games.
The United States’ chances of advancing got a whole lot better with the thrilling win over Ghana and news that superstar Cristiano Ronaldo left the Portugal training grounds after Wednesday’s early practice with his injured knee heavily wrapped. Reports are mixed whether he will play in Sunday’s U.S.-Portugal game in the Amazonian rainforest town of Manaus.
It appears Jozy Altidore, the U.S. forward who grew up in Boca Raton, will miss Sunday’s game with a strained hamstring, which is a shame because he was so eager to play well, and the American attack isn’t as potent without him.
The thought of a U.S.-Portugal game without Altidore and Ronaldo is a bummer, because both players are such large figures for their teams. But even without them, Sunday’s game should be a scorcher, and the traveling band of 20,000 U.S. followers will be rocking.
Although this is a huge country, and lacks the intimacy of European hosts with trains and city plazas, the fan experience here has been festive, to say the least. More than 1 million fans have partied at the FIFA Fan Fests in the 12 host cities, and, from what I’ve seen and heard, the scene at Copacabana Beach in Rio is everything one would expect from a Brazilian party.
Impromptu pep rallies are breaking out all over the nation.
At a seafood restaurant in on Natal Sunday night, a giant group of Japanese fans began chanting: “Nippon! Nippon!’’ and was immediately drowned out by Mexican fans, who chanted “Me-xi-co! Me-xi-co!’’
Those moments are what make the World Cup so wonderful.
Are things perfect? No. They never are at big events. After covering 13 Olympics and five World Cups, I accept that glitches are inevitable.
The exterior areas and parking lots of the newly constructed stadiums were incomplete. Some electrical wires were exposed, and some walls remain unpainted. Our media bus driver in Natal got extremely lost getting to a stadium that was in plain view from miles away. Stadium security breaches allowed rowdy ticketless groups of Argentine and Chilean fans to storm into Maracana Stadium.
The sound system went out in Porto Alegre, so the French and Honduran teams (and fans) were deprived of hearing their national anthems. Some seat numbers were missing at a few venues, causing confusion for those unlucky fans assigned those seats.
And the concession stands at some of the stadiums have either run out of food, or had extremely skimpy offerings. At the Brazil-Croatia opener in Sao Paulo’s main stadium, concession stands advertised cheeseburgers, hamburgers, hot dogs and chocolates, but the only thing they had were potato chips and soggy ham and mayonnaise sandwiches in plastic wrappers.
But in the grand scheme of things, those problems seem minor. They can happen anywhere. Remember, the power went out at the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans, and, far worse, a bomb exploded in downtown Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics.
It remains to be seen whether Brazil can get through the next 25 days without any major trouble. Will it be the Copa das Copas (Cup of All Cups), as they hope? Maybe. Maybe not. But so far, things are going better than expected.