Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.
Although I am sure the residents of Natal are all good-natured and god-fearing people, I arrived in the City of the Sun at the end of a deluge. Record rainfall had wreaked havoc upon the region over the past few days, including during the Mexico vs. Cameroon game, causing floods and other damage. This was a time for Natal and its beautiful beaches to literally shine, but instead the World Cup opened with downpours, bus strikes, an unfinished $400 million stadium, a barely finished airport, and broken promises over other infrastructure and social welfare programs that were supposed to be implemented before the tournament—more glaring reasons why Brazilians are more than displeased with how the federal government is managing the whole affair. And yet during my trip to Natal I would also witness some of the World Cup at its best.
I was still about a thousand kilometers from Natal when I started to feel the forces gathering for the USA vs. Ghana showdown. A troop of Ghanaian fans marched into the airport gate area in Manaus chanting songs and occasionally taunting American fans with a few verses: "We shall score you, we shall put pepper in your eyes." All in the run of play, of course, and before you knew it a mix of Americans and Ghanaians started taking group photographs together. Rather than a bunch of people consuming branded products in corralled stadiums, these were truly diverse groups brought together for the love of the game and respecting each other despite their rivalries.
Once again I only had about twelve hours in the city, so once in Natal I first went to check out the FIFA Fan Fest for the Portugal vs. Germany game. It was supposed to be dramatically set at the north end of the city beach, but no ocean vistas could be appreciated with all the fences wrapped in corporate logos and other nonsense. The atmosphere did not inspire, nor did the Portuguese side who completely unraveled over the course of the first half. Instead I walked the length of the city beach which seemed eerily quiet and abandoned–most likely due to the inclement weather. I was having trouble finding locals interested in the matches of the day as well. Some kids played a pickup game of soccer on the beach instead. I suspected they, along with the rest of the city, were saving up their enthusiasm for the Mexico vs. Brazil game occurring the next day.
I finally hailed a cab to take me closer to the Arena dos Dunas, where I started to find more sparks of life. There were fellow American soccer enthusiasts scattered about the handful of bars on the main avenue leading up to the stadium (including a burger joint oddly called Pittsburgh). They were all decked out in USA-themed gear and costumes. I was impressed: Here were some very savvy American soccer fans getting into the World Cup spirit. When in South Africa for the World Cup, I rarely saw other Americans, but then again I never went to a USA game. Seems I like underestimated the American soccer fan base.
By the time I made it to the stadium, my mind was completely blown. There were thousands of Americans in full regalia doing what Americans do best: getting extremely riled up before a sporting event. Songs were being sung, beers were being pounded, general mayhem was ensuing. I was so inspired by the passion being shown for the beautiful game by my fellow Americans. There were Elvises, Abraham Lincolns, Captain Americas, and even a local dressed up as Rambo (I later learned that he apparently does this on a daily basis, whether or not a World Cup is happening). Then the Ghanaians descended upon the crowd brandishing drums and horns, marching in strong numbers toward the entranceways of the Arena dos Dunas. It was bedlam, but the good kind.
Once the game started, the surrounding neighborhoods went completely dead. They were in the first place, actually. The Arena dos Dunas, which cuts a pretty figure, is set amongst linear streets with an occasional highrise and tons of odd stores, gas stations, and a restaurant or two. Everyone who cared about the game was in the stadium (except me of course). I decided to rest my feet at a nearby bar and order some dinner while watching the match. And what a match it became, filled with the drama that one can only hope for during the World Cup. The only other people in the bar were some well-dressed young Brazilians enjoying cold beers. They were rooting for Ghana, but I didn't hold it against them. It turns out they worked at a bank next door, and started giving me the lay of the land for Natal during the World Cup.
Everyone in the city called the Arena dos Dunas the "white elephant." It stuck out, and would most likely come to little use after the World Cup, just like the Arena de Amazonia. The local team rarely drew more than a few thousand fans per match, and could not imaginably fill the 46,000 seat stadium anytime in the near future. The residents of Natal that I met were completely happy to host the World Cup of course, but it came with many frustrations. Natal is becoming a booming tourist destination in its own right, thanks to its outstanding coastline, but it is also attracting an increasing percentage of the regional sex trade. The World Cup has only heightened the illicit demand.
The USA team pulled off the win in the end. What a huge boost for the USA soccer program. I am praying they take down Portugal now. It would be amazing to see them into the knockout stage. The American fans streamed out of the stadium grinning and giving each other high-fives. I am sure they helped carry their players through to the end. The Ghanaian fans were in the deepest of funks. It was actually quite sad. They definitely wear their hearts on their sleeves. I had to quickly dispatch myself to the airport, though. Off to Fortaleza for the next big Brazilian match. More to come.