The game was in Manaus, the big screen in Recife, and it smelled like the nasty part of Brooklyn
The fan fest here in Recife wasn’t even supposed to exist. Back in May, the city announced it was canceling its watch party because it was behind schedule and there were other, better things to worry about before Brazil’s World Cup. The decision drew the ire of FIFA, and since international soccer’s governing body is an organization that cares about perception and little else, the festival inevitably went on.
It’s located next to a river that smells vaguely like Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal at low tide, with the massive screen sitting just down the street from Rio Branco Square, better known as Ground Zero. A half-finished bus stop, destined to remain 60 percent complete for all time, lies within a couple strong goal kicks. Like most things at this World Cup, the fan fest works but only just. Which is enough.
“There are big groups of Americans everywhere,” a man wearing a United States jersey behind me said dismissively an hour before the Stars and Stripes kicked off against Portugal on Sunday. Packs of three and four and six wandered around the street, which was lined by stands selling Brahma, the official beer of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and other stations encouraging fan festers to interact with tournament sponsors. Mexican fans were also out in force, as their national team will take the field against Croatia on Monday afternoon in Recife with a spot in the knockout round on the line. I saw two Portuguese jerseys, both Cristiano Ronaldo’s No. 7, of course. A guy in a Mexico shirt walked by. “Fuck that guy, Ronaldo” he said to no one in particular. We’ll call it a push.
Fifteen minutes before kick-off, right after the first crowd-wide “U-S-A U-S-A” chant, the giant screen showed a Kia ad in which mechanical arms finish a stadium right before the game starts. Considering the the well-publicized struggle it was for the stadiums to be ready for the tournament, that might not have been the theme I would have chosen, but I’m no Don Draper.
It was hard to tell how many U.S. fans were present. It felt like a lot—people who were diehard enough to travel to Brazil while not enough to venture into the jungle of Manaus—but yelling “U-S-A” repeatedly was also an effective way to move up through the crowd. El Tri’s supporters, meanwhile, had mixed allegiances, some favoring the U.S., some not, and some just focused on a bottle of El Jimador. If we had a unifying force, it was a dislike of Ronaldo. He really brings people together.
Portugal, of course, scored quickly in one of those freak tallies that is shocking and deflating and just throws everything out of whack on the field and off. The U.S., stunned, gamely fought back on the screen in front of us. The Americans were better, frankly, than their cheering section was in Recife. A half-hearted “I Believe” chant rang out. Or maybe it was full-hearted cheer, but only two people took it up so the effect was the same. (Also, that chant is getting old fast.)
Halftime came and went with more Brahma, an accidental smashing of the now empty El Jimador bottle, and a still bewildered American fanbase. The pro-American nature of the fan fest crowd wasn’t entirely evident until the 55th minute when Ricardo Costa, starting in place of Pepe who earned a red card for touching a German with his luscious head of hair, cleared Michael Bradley’s shot off the line. The Stars and Stripes supporters responded with a roar. They, we, were alive. Portugal looked vulnerable. A goal was coming, right?
At the hour mark, we had our first genuine “U-S-A” chant since before kick off. It started in the back and moved to the front, with fans more coordinated than they were during the disjointed national anthem. The Mexican fans didn’t scream “puto,” either, which was progress, I suppose.
Another positive sign: Jermaine Jones’s elegant curling shot that beat Beto in the 64th minute. Just as he blasted the ball toward the net, the man behind me wearing a “Greenwich Village” shirt who had a Brazil flag painted on his left cheek and apparently could see the future shouted “goal.” And then it was. Chaos, pandemonium, beer tossing. It was the type of blast you can appreciate from 2,000 miles away, especially when you get a replay to see it again.
A U.S. flag flew on the balcony high above the river. Half a continent away, the Americans were, as commentators say ridiculously when they are trying to sound smart, in the ascendency. Fifteen minutes later, Clint Dempsey managed to score with his stomach, just like Jurgen Klinsmann drew it up in the locker room at halftime. With nine minutes left, the Americans were already looking toward the improbable advancement out of the group.
And then this:
“It’s okay, we’ll go through,” an American fan wearing one of those bedazzled red, white, and blue Cat in the Hat deals on his said as we filed out of the fan fest. The Brazilians and the Mexicans stayed to party. The U.S. supporters walked away, deflated behind their grim smiles. A painful point would have to do.