After nearly 18 months of planning and saving, the day had finally arrive for Kooks and I check off another one of Life’s Bucket List items – attend a World Cup match! Soccer was the first sport I ever played when my parents signed me up when I was seven-years-old. Kook’s Dad watches all the major International soccer tournaments, like World Cup and Euro Cup, so his influenced rubbed off on her over the years even though she never played organized soccer before.
As for the World Cup itself, I did not seriously consider going until I met Beetlejuice at the Barrier Reef Sports Bar & Grill in Caye Caulker a few years ago. Kooks began thinking about going to Brazil after watching the 2010 Final with her Dad when Spain defeated the Netherlands in one of the most memorable finals in World Cup history. Both of us had the same dream, but neither of us knew each other at the time.
Flash forward to Winter 2011 – a mere nine months after Kooks’ made that decision – and in comes my role in her most ambitious plans to date. We had just started dating for a couple of weeks, and I had invited her to come out with me and a few friends to watch the home opener for the Toronto FC. Instead of saying yes or no, she tells me “we should go to the World Cup in Brazil!” My jaw dropped at that moment. Enter dead silence for what must have seen like an eternity, but was really only a few seconds. It was agreed then that we would we do whatever it took to be in Brazil for the World Cup whether we had tickets or not. Just the atmosphere alone would be worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
Of course, we did our research to find out how to apply for a Brazilian Visa and World Cup tickets. Ultimately, we got tickets to Match #42 – France vs. Ecuador! Not too bad given France’s previous successes in the World Cup! Kick-off was scheduled for 5pm. We figured we should give ourselves at least 2 ½ – 3 hours to get there so we could have time to check out the festivities in and around the Stadium. We left our hostel just past 2pm. As a ticket holder, we were allowed to ride Rio’s subway system for free! With an expected attendance of nearly 75,000 fans, the City of Rio offered free public transportation for ticket holders to reduce the traffic chaos near the stadium before and after the event.
As we waited for the subway, we began to hear the chants of the French fans gradually get louder and louder as they entered the station. And so began one of the greatest sports spectacles I have ever seen! The ride from Copacabana to Maracanã Stadium normally would take about 45 minutes or so with stops included. It easily doubled on this particular afternoon as stop after stop after stop, both French and Ecuadorian fans alike began to cram in the cars. I felt like a sardine in a tin can, and have never felt so crowded in before even though I have had more than my fair share of subway rides in New York City, San Francisco, Paris, Toronto, and Vancouver before. This just further added to the excitement of the match!
At one point, we had to switch lines. The French fans got off on one side of the platform. The Ecuadorian fans got off the other side. The track was literally the divide that separated these two great nations. I was stoked. Things were going great up until we arrived at Maracanã Stadium. It was here that two members in our group – Paul and Tara – realized that they had lost their tickets. To make matters worse, this particular day was their Wedding anniversary and something they had both made a pact to do four years earlier when they got married!
We had to leave our friends behind as Security was asking people to continue toward the stadium. Kooks and I had to enter Gate D, which was the front of the Stadium. Normally, the walk from Maracanã Station to Gate D would take about 15 – 20 minutes, but with the amount of people taking the subway today, this actually took us close to an hour.
Along we went with the herd. I nearly lost Kooks a few times as some people would rudely stop in the middle of the walkway to take photos of Maracanã or signs pointing towards the Stadium. Once we got past the craziness, my eyes were amazed by the numerous costumes that both French and Ecuadorian fans alike wore to support their respective teams on this sunny June afternoon. At one point, we must have walked past somewhere around 10 – 12 television cameras all interviewing various fans along the way.
As for the Security situation, I have never felt so safe in my life. In the weeks leading up to the 2014 World Cup, there had been many violent strikes and protests throughout Brazil denouncing the Government for spending billions of dollars on this tournament – money which they believe should have been spent on improving healthcare and education in South America’s most populous country instead. Both the military and tourism police were out in full force on this epic day while several helicopters hovered above to keep an eye for any suspicious activity going on either in or around the Stadium. Fortunately, nothing happened on this particular day, so we could breathe a sigh of relief.
By the time we finally had our tickets scanned and entered the Stadium, it was already 4:15pm. We had 45 minutes before Opening kickoff, so we decided it was better for us to take our seats rather than check out the nearby Fan Zone, which I was hoping to see.
We finally took our seats with about 30 minutes to spare. The raw emotion pouring out from within us as we realized we had accomplished one of our greatest dreams was indescribable. We just sat back and admired the biggest sports spectacle we have ever been to. This was even greater than the Winter Classic!
As for the match itself, Ecuador needed to win by 2 or more goals to advance to the Round of 16. France had already qualified in their previous match against Switzerland, which we had watched in Bonito a few days earlier.
The first half was clearly dominated by Ecuador as they had their life on the line here. France had quite a few scoring chances, but just couldn’t seem to put the ball into the net nor find the net for that matter as Ecuador had numerous goal kicks in the first 45 minutes.
The second half was not much better. We are not sure what happened here, but Ecuador seemed to have run out of gas at this point with fewer scoring chances at this point. France dominated the second half of the match, but not by much. And just like the problems they had in the first half, the French just couldn’t seem to put the ball on the net or in. Sadly, the match ended in a 0 – 0 draw, and all I could hear was a unison of boos and jeers by the French fans. It was just incredible, and not in a good way, either!
Despite the poor performance we saw on the pitch, Kooks and I couldn’t be happier that we attended! Hands down, going to this World Cup match has been my most memorable travel experience to date. Sure, I might end up going to another World Cup tournament or two in the future after my encounter with Beetlejuice or with the American woman we sat beside on the plane in Mexico City, but I can’t imagine what I can do or see at this point that will top this experience. Ever!
What are your biggest dreams that you would love to accomplish? Is attending the World Cup one of them?