Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.
My morning in the Curitiba airport almost started with a riot. The plane I was taking to Belo Horizonte to catch the Argentina-Iran match was delayed. It was sitting on a tarmac an hour away in Porte Alegre, which meant I would reach Belo Horizonte around the time the game started. I wasn't too distressed, but Argentinian fans were furious and crowding the counter at the gate. There was desperation in their eyes as they pelted airline representatives with all manner of critical commentary: It is the World Cup! How could such thing a happen? There must be a back up plane! Against all odds, there was, and I was suddenly boarding another plane only thirty minutes off the scheduled departure. It was a miracle of sorts, or an elaborate prank to make a few dozen Argentinians nearly lose their minds at the thought of missing Messi perform his miracles.
I arrived at the new Belo Horizonte airport and hopped a direct bus to the Estádio Governador Magalhães Pinto, aka the Mineirão, a massive concrete edifice that holds upwards to 60,000 fans and just underwent a $300 million facelift. The police and military were out again in great force. The bus drove through rows upon rows of stern enforcers sporting riot gear and wielding clubs. Brazilian cities exist in a militarized state on game days, and Belo Horizonte, as one of the largest and most important host cities for the World Cup, was not taking any chances. I once again faced a situation where I could not get even get close enough to take a picture of the stadium.
The bus finally dropped me off in what I can only describe as an upper class neighborhood. Large homes with gated gardens lined the streets. Apparently there are a few universities surrounding the Mineirão, and affluent residents are drawn to the area. It was very different from Sao Paulo or Fortaleza where stadiums were built as economic incentives to the surrounding indigent communities (even if they rarely provided any tangible benefits). The ambience did make it easier for me to sneak up on the stadium, though. I stick out in favelas, but not so much the Mineirão neighborhood. After pretending to buy something from a newsstand on a side street, I snuck past the police. A few more "lost gringo" maneuvers later, I was in front of the stadium snapping photographs of the late arrivals to the match.
At the same time, I was also trapped. If I walked a few hundred meters in any direction away from the stadium, I would be pushed out of the ring of police, and forced to travel a great distance to find another screen or accommodating venue for watching the game. Not that I wanted to leave immediately—I was actually quite fascinated by the Iranian fans, especially when they started posing with two people dressed respectively as Darth Vader and a storm trooper holding an anti-racism banner. It was one of the odder sights I have encountered in my life, especially as the Iranian fans turned the "Olé, Olé, Olé" tune into an "Iran, Iran, Iran" chant for a local Brazilian news team. It was a confounding if not inspiring rendition. Darth Vader seemed impressed as well.
All together there were around a hundred fans and journalists caught up in this World Cup purgatory next to the Mineirão. Stuffed into a small beer stand with three screens, tensions quickly heightened as Argentina seemed unable to put in a goal. A call and response quickly developed where the disgruntled moans of Argentinian fans would be followed by zealous Iranian cheers. Journalists trying to upload the newest protest footage from earlier in the day would quickly turn their cameras on the Iranians whenever they made a noise as well. It was an odd mix, and Iranian fans were entertaining hopes that their team could pull off a miracle against Argentina. Then Messi delivered a resounding goal in the final minutes of the game. Argentinian fans freaked out. Iranian fans were despondent. Our small party of wayward fans seemed ready to implode, but everyone decided to order another round of beers instead. International incident averted.
I wandered around the stadium after the game to bask in the ecstatic glow of the Argentinian fans. The Iranian fans were not too dejected either. If anything they got to witness a great goal from Messi, a noble way for any team to lose. I then followed the crowds down the hill on which the Mineirão is perched to a beautiful lagoon where people enjoyed the late afternoon sun on its banks. The whole scene was outrageously picturesque, so I decided to leave and head into the city center. The twenty minute drive lead through the incredible favela sprawl of Belo Horizonte. There are nearly six million people in the greater metro area. Belo Horizonte saw some of the most violent protests last year during the Confederations Cup, but all was calm now. People were still keeping the lid on their hostility during the World Cup. All the bars downtown were filled with people sitting around tables, casually drinking beer, waiting for the Brazilian side to play the next day in Brasilia.