Even without the World Cup in town, South America’s most populous city is congested with 12 million residents (nearly four million more than New York City), endless urban sprawl, and a complex web of traffic-choked freeways that make the Miami rush-hour commute on I-95 seem like a pastoral Sunday afternoon drive.
On Tuesday, 48 hours before Brazil kicks off the 2014 World Cup against Croatia at still-under-construction Arena de Sao Paulo, the roads resembled parking lots as teams, fans, and media descended on a city trying to work its way out of a week-long subway workers’ strike.
A 30-mile drive from the airport to the city center took nearly two hours. Frustrated commuters and tourists inched along slowly enough to take in elaborate soccer-themed graffiti murals that line the highways.
The U.S. national team bus needed 30 minutes to drive four miles from its hotel to its training base at Sao Paulo FC’s well-guarded luxurious complex in the Barra Funda district. The facility features three perfectly-manicured fields, park-like landscaping, a swimming pool, a game room, full kitchen, and dorm rooms (which the players used Tuesday for napping between two-a-days). The grounds also feature a resident flock of peacocks, although they were not roaming around on Tuesday.
Although the facility is not as rural as the South African farm they stayed at four years ago, it is a welcome respite from the city madness. Players and coaches can fully focus on the task at hand: Monday’s game against Ghana in the northeastern coast town of Natal.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, his adviser Berti Vogts and scout Matthias Hamann joined the team Tuesday morning. They stayed behind one extra night in Miami to get an up-close look at Ghana against South Korea Monday night at Sun Life Stadium.
Ghana won 4-0, but U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said players are not putting much stock in that. They watched the second half of that game from here.
“In general, I think it’s hard to take much from any of these warm-up games,’’ Bradley said. “The teams are trying different things, different guys get put on the field in different spots. I think [Monday] night was a good example of that. It would be easy to look at the end and say “4-0, what a performance.” But still you know it’s a warm-up game. Regardless of how the game went, we have a lot of respect for Ghana. They are a good team. We know that they are dangerous, that they can cause trouble.”
Bradley has vivid memories of the 2010 World Cup game, in which the U.S. got eliminated after a 2-1 extra time battle.
“I remember quite a bit,’’ Bradley said. “It was a game where we found ourselves down early, but the response was good and for the majority of that game we were the ones in control and pushing things and looking to get back to 1-1 and then once we get back to 1-1, we were still pushing for a win.
“It’s a team that can cause you trouble, especially in the attacking half. They have guys who have a mix of athleticism, technical ability, and the way they can take certain plays and almost improvise and turn that half play into all of a sudden, a chance.’’
Bradley said the first game is critical.
“Everybody goes into the first game with the idea that you want points,’’ he said. “I read an interview with Pique yesterday where he said for a team like Spain it’s no different, they’re playing Holland and their idea is that they want the result, they need points. Everybody starts at zero so the first game is so important.
“Statistically, the chances of advancing go way up now if you’re able to get a point or three from the first game. We’ve certainly made no secret of the fact that all the focus at this point is about Ghana and making sure that we do everything we can so that on June 16 we step on the field and are ready to leave it all out there knowing that a good result puts us in a really good spot.’’
The U.S. will have an invitation-only open practice for 700 fans on Wednesday. They will then face Belgium in a closed-door scrimmage Thursday. Belgium, a potential U.S. opponent in later rounds, is considered by many experts to be a sleeper team that could make a deep run.
But the bigger match Thursday is the World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia. Host Brazil begins its campaign for a sixth title. It remains to be seen whether the newly-built stadium can handle the full load of 61,000 spectators, as it has yet to be tested at full capacity.
On Tuesday, workers were still working on a giant scaffolding staircase that connected the stadium to a transportation hub across the street. Workers were also laying down sod, erecting light posts, and putting the finishing touches on the grounds. Decorative banners and bunting were being stored in a parking lot.
They have two days to get it all ready. The clock is ticking.