As it is always such a long build up to the World Cup, it really is a relief when the football starts and what a couple of days we've had to the opening of Brazil 2014. After all the discussion about demonstrations and infrastructure deficit, the headlines here in Brazil are now mostly about football. The Selecao kicked it all off with an opening night win over Croatia and then there was Holland's incredible routing of reigning World Champions Spain on Friday.
I left Heathrow on Thursday evening with Brazil's game finely poised at 1-1. They had to give a 'last call' to get many of us to leave the big screen beside the gate behind us and board the plane.
I caught one more of the goals via a vine update from Extratime.com before having to turn the phone off but our captain gave us the final score after he'd rightfully given his priority to getting us to a cruising altitude.
In São Paulo very early the next day, the papers were full of photos of Neymar and Brazil's 3-1 win. However, the hostility shown towards the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff from some home fans at the game also made the headlines. The airport was full of transiting World Cup visitors. There were Swiss fans with their cow bells loudly making their through the terminal, England fans going to Manuas and the Dutch were in happy mood en-route to Salvador and they were only going to get happier that day.
I got chatting to some Japanese fans off to Recife for the late Saturday night game against Ivory Coast. We reminisced about the World Cup in their home country. One of them was able to list off a few Irish players from the 2002 event. He was pleased to hear Robbie Keane was still playing and surprised that Roy Keane was assistant manager and I don't think it was because he felt Keane should have taken the Celtic job. He inquired about Damien Duff and I told him he is still playing club football but I didn't have the heart to tell that is in Australia.
Cuiaba is the city where this Extratime writer will be attending four matches over a 12 day period. It is not a footballing power house city like Rio or Sao Paulo, in fact it is the smallest city that is hosting World Cup matches, with a population of just over half a million. It is over 1,700km north west of São Paulo and 1,000km west of Brasilia. The biggest event the city hosts is the annual state fair that attracts 300,000 visitors, with the four-day annual rodeo attracting around 80,000 fans.
So why is this city hosting the World Cup? Rather than the required eight host cities, the Brazilian authorities decided to go with 12 and spread the event around this massive country. The Mato Grosso state is rich in agriculture and draws significant tourist numbers to the Pantanal wetlands north of the city. A chance to put Cuiaba on the map and improve the cities infrastructure was the plan. It hasn't quite turned out like that.
The new airport terminal has only just been opened and there were still plenty of workers in hardhats in the building on Friday afternoon. The multi-million euro rail link from airport to city centre is nowhere near complete. It is a similar length to the LUAS Cross City project in Dublin at 20km.That has a four year construction timeline but the construction in Cuaiba only began in 2012 and is far from finished. There is a good view of the construction project by taxi on the way into the city centre, as there was of heavily armed soldiers on a number of major junctions on the main highway from the airport.
On Friday night I attended the Chile v Australia game at the €200m Arena Pantanal. It is a really impressive 43,000 stadium but is one of those Brazilian stadia that will unlikely be full any time soon after the World Cup. It was a much delayed project and one of a number of stadium sites for the World Cup that had fatalities during construction. Neither of the city's football teams, Cuiaba Esporte Club nor Mixto, play in top flight of Brazilian football. Cuiaba currently play in the third division in a ground with a capacity of less than 7,000.
The Chilean fans far outnumbered the sizeable Australian crowd, who many Brazilian fans had lent support to due to their common kit colours. Fans mingled in the bars adjacent to the stadium watching Spain's demolition by a rampant Dutch side. The atmosphere built to a mix of Chilean and Australian chants. Fireworks and bangers from the locals were let off into the spectacular sky as sunset and the local 6pm kick off time approached.
Inside the stadium, the pyrotechnics on the pitch were provided by Chile early in the game. Jorge Sampaoli's side were 2-0 up inside 14 minutes, thanks to goals from Barcelona's Alexis Sanchez and Palmeires' Jorge Valdiva, and their fans were doing their best to raise the roof on the recently completed stadium. The Australians looked like they would be overrun but came back into the game, thanks to a towering header from Tim Cahill. The Socceroos had a number of chances to equalise in the second half before Wigan midfielder Jean Beausejour rounded off the win for South America's La Roja with a late goal.
The first two days of the World Cup had come to an end with 15 goals from the first four games. We await to see what the next chapters from Brazil 2014 will bring.
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