For the past month, I have been working in Brazil providing production services for international broadcasters covering the World Cup. Twelve Brazilian different cities hosted the tournament, which began on June 12 in São Paulo, and 32 nations from all over the globe participated—bringing hordes of players, fans and reporters to remote parts of Brazil that had never heard their languages or seen their flags before.
I traveled to six of these host cities by air and road, and witnessed just how vast and versatile this country of 200 million people really is—and I didn’t even see the half of it.
My four-week journey began in the northeastern city of Natal, capital of Rio Grande do Norte, where I flew into the new São Gonçalo do Amarante–Governador Aluízio Alves International Airport. The privately-owned terminal had been inaugurated a week before our arrival. Its tall ceilings and glass façade were beautiful and modern, with curvy windows that reflected the light from the afternoon sunset. Our 12 pieces of luggage arrived promptly and the employees were helpful and courteous.
However, the airport is far from Natal’s city center, and street signs and pavement were absent at several points along the 20 mile (32 km) route. My taxi driver complained that the airport only had one entry, and cursed the new structure and the World Cup for making the local airport twice as distant as the old one.
“You can’t imagine the traffic that forms here after 4:00 pm,” my driver complained. “It’s amazing that our politicians are so incompetent.”
Natal, known as the “city of sun,” is famous for its sand dunes—which inspired the shape of the Arena das Dunas stadium. Erected in the middle of the city, the white venue towers over a windy highway and neighboring buildings.
During the week I was there, Mother Nature made a mockery of Natal’s nickname and brought on heavy rain showers and mudslides that nearly collapsed the city. The Mexico v. Cameroon match—the first World Cup game held in the arena—was nearly cancelled due to flooding, and a small hill near our hotel collapsed, blocking the way to the resorts where most of the teams were housed. Within a few hours, the city government declared a state of emergency, and we had to hit the road to keep to our schedule.
We drove more than 310 miles (500 km) east in our rented Renault Duster to Fortaleza, the capital of Ceará state, where Brazil was playing Mexico at Castelão stadium. When I arrived at the city’s “Fan Fest”—a venue built on the beach where fans gathered to watch the matches on a large screen—it seemed like the only language spoken in the audience was Spanish. According to the state police, nearly 40,000 Mexicans had traveled to the northeastern city.
Along the boardwalk near the Fan Fest, characters from Mexican pop culture, like El Chavo and Chapulin Colorado, appeared among the sea of green “tri” jerseys. The trumpets of mariachis echoed in the air and fans drunk on tequila sang the famous “Cielito Lindo” serenade.
The next stop on our journey was Recife, the capital of Pernambuco state, known for its forró music and delicious tapioca treats. Our trip also coincided with the city’s famous festas juninas that honor Saint John the Baptist. Most of the festivities were concentrated in the old city center, where large stages had been set up for foreign tourists to test their dance moves with volunteer local instructors.
This was also the arena where Costa Rica beat Italy during the group stage and eliminated the European giant from the Cup. Tico fans flooded the streets with red, white and blue and celebrated the unprecedented victory. Yet for an unfortunate group of people, the match left more than a bad feeling in their stomach—roughly 82 cases of food poisoning were reported following the match by people who ate at the stadium’s concession stands.
The next stop on our trip was Belo Horizonte, a city that will forever be remembered as the place where the Brazilian national team suffered its worst loss in history—the 7-1 defeat to Germany that has since become known as the “Mineratzen.” But when I was in Belo Horizonte on June 28, the host country played Chile and advanced to the quarter-finals in a dramatic penalty shoot-out. The Brazilian mood was still celebratory, and Neymar was still playing on the field.
We then drove to Brasília, the country’s capital, where Nigeria and France faced off in the new national stadium for a spot in the quarter finals. The Praça dos Três Poderes (Three Powers Plaza), dotted with geometric government buildings designed by the late Oscar Niemeyer, was lit up in Brazilian yellow and green. The last remaining African team was sent home after the match, but ended their time in the World Cup with a festive procession that included dancing and percussion.
My last stop was Rio de Janeiro, the “Marvelous City,” where Argentina eventually lost to Germany in the World Cup final. The site of the final match—the legendary Maracanã stadium—underwent a 1.6 billion real (roughly $715 million) facelift for the tournament.
Though it will be remembered for Brazil’s devastating defeat, the 2014 World Cup was full of surprises. I visited fascinating places, met incredible people, weathered extreme climate changes and experienced a unique moment in this incredible country’s history. With time, I may forget the stats and scores of some of the matches that took place here, but I’ll never forget the experiences that I had throughout this World Cup journey.