Nine stories up in a high-rise building in the middle of a city of 22 million people, I lay awake, dazed and energized. Outside explosions were going off and horns were blaring. I was in Sao Paulo, and Brazil was in the middle of their first World Cup match of this years tournament. The city’s energy was literally shaking the walls around me. Each goal was like the combination of a thunderbolt and a earthquake hitting the population of the country. My friend walked into the hotel room having just arrived in the city.
“I hear Brazil won”, I said with a facial expression indicating I was expressing the obvious.
“It was a draw actually”, he laughed at me.
Despite the 1-1 draw, the city’s cheering continued through the night and into the next morning.
Today I finished the last remaining time and location sensitive list item on my life list. I had the honor of being in Brazil to attend a World Cup match in-person. Since my Life List has a deadline of May 25th 2017, I only had one remaining opportunity to check off this list item. Otherwise all of my efforts on my list would have been left incomplete. I spent nearly six months preparing for this item and made sure my backup plans had backup plans.
Securing my match tickets was one of the sketchiest experiences of my life. I had bought my tickets directly from FIFA (not wanting to chance the ticket lotto) and arrived at the specified address in Sao Paulo. A tough looking security guard allowed me through a small door and immediately patted me down and checked my passport. Cross-referencing his list, he introduced me, in Portuguese, to his colleague. He spoke too fast for me even to understand his name. We walked down a series of hallways, through a safe door and arrived at a artificially lit conference room. I walked in and the guard locked the door behind us. He opened a combination lock and we double checked every detail of the tickets that he handed me. I signed after confirming each number on the ticket (block, row, seat, date) and he left me alone.
After five minutes, I heard a knock on the door and and a different armed guard escorted me to a black sedan. I got in and we instantly started driving.
I had purchased the relatively inexpensive basic package. I smirked as I thought about what had justhappened. What would have have happened if I would have bought one of the more expensive packages?
England vs Uruguay
Anxious but excited I woke up two hours before my alarm. It was match day and I was as prepared as I could be for my first World Cup match. My friend and I pre-gamed at a nearby Churrascaria. We filled up on cheese infused meat and local beer. Full bellied, I retrieved our tickets from my hidden compartment in our hotel room and we started toward the subway.
The organizers had made it incredibly easy to get to the stadium from anywhere within Sao Paulo. There were hundreds of bilingual volunteers lining the subway system showing people where to go. The trains were clean, on-time and efficient. There were TV reporters with gear every 1000 feet interviewing fans and the chants from various different countries (not just the two involved in the day’s match) were upbeat and positive. At no point did I hear any threats or see any fights between competing fans.
Security around the stadium was militant and elaborate. Giant rings of barriers had been set up at different intervals around the stadium to keep protesters and fans apart. Police and members of the military lined the crowds. Even still, the general feeling wasn’t uncomfortable or threatening. Several times I thought I heard protesters only to turn around and see fans chanting and dancing. Protests were happening all around Brazil but they were not present within earshot of the numerous stadiums.
My friend and I made it through the last security check and officially entered the stadium. It had taken us longer than expected so we made it to our seat right at kick-off. From the moment we reached our destination, it was clear that a World Cup game is a very different, and frankly better experience, than a normal futbol match.
I have been to sold-out championship matches in both Buenos Aires and Barcelona. Those matches were filled with some extreme fans but the general mass of them were just excited, not riveted. The feeling of attending those matches was fun but several levels below my first World Cup match.
At a World Cup match, every single fan is ecstatic. Every major kick feels like lightening, every card thrown, feels like a seismic shift. The crowd is like a hurricane and it doesn’t die down for 90 minutes.
I attended three matches in-person (England vs Uruguay, Netherlands vs Chile and Korea vs Belgium) and experienced a completely different event each time. England had the rowdiest fans, Chile was the loudest and Korea had the most quirky fans. We had different seats for each match and got to have new firsts every day.
Is The World Cup The Single Greatest Sporting Event?
While pursuing my Life List, I have been incredibly fortunate and have been able to attend the Olympics (2013 Sochi winter games), the Superbowl (New Orleans 2013), the World Series (Ranger Ballpark 2011) and now the World Cup (Brazil 2014). Each of these events has been incredible but only one can be called the greatest.
Determining which event is the greatest is both complicated and difficult. Each individual event had specific aspects that were better than all of the other events.
The Superbowl stands out with its incredible and sometimes ridiculous emphasis on money and sponsorships. More than the other events, it stands out as a spectacle, an event worth watching largely for its quirky players and advertising. That said, the Superbowl is a sporting event that is really only fanatically enjoyed in one nation. This prevents it from being the world’s greatest.
The World Series is again America-centric but is important to at least a handful of other countries. It does a superior job of emphasizing the true nature and art of its corresponding sport but it fails to be a real global event.
This leaves only the Olympics and the World Cup.
Both events are globally focused and played on the world’s stage. Neither event takes place annually which adds tremendously to both of their perceived value. The Olympics stands above the World Cup with its ability to showcase obscure athletes playing obscure sports whereas the World Cup stands above the Olympics with its ability of producing true global superstars.
But all those dimensions miss the real focus of what is needed to be the world’s greatest sporting event.
The World Cup stands above all other world sporting events for one primary reason. While the stadium lights shine on futbol players, the real emphasis of the matches are on the fans and their home countries. The fans’ faces, national flags and chants fill every match, newscast, commercial and stadium. All around the world, countless viewing parties take place with hardcore and casual fans alike. The emphasis is largely on country pride and the art of sport. It is the fans that make the World Cup the greatest sporting event in the world.
While the naysayers of FIFA and the Brazilian government were loud, the futbol fans were much louder. Despite the corporations and politics involved, the true heart of the game and fanbase rang through loudly. More importantly, the whole world listened.