As the World Cup progressed through the knockout phase, I've been able to linger a day or two in the cities I visit, and I was more than happy to return to Salvador. American fans were descending upon the city en masse to support their team against Belgium in the round of sixteen. It was crunch time. I attended the USA World Cup Fan HQ party the night before the match to continue my appraisal of the new American fan scene. Will Ferrell showed up at the last one in Recife to give a short but rowdy pep talk featuring allusions to Suarez's now infamous bite and proclamations that he was going to take the field against Germany. No celebrity appearances were made this time, but USA super fan "Teddy Roosevelt" was there along with hundreds of others carousing in a cavernous dance hall. Flip cup, a popular fraternity drinking game, was being played on one side. It was almost like spring break, minus the nudity. (Too many families were in attendance for that.)
The next day I headed to the Arena Fonte Nova on the early side. My last experience with game day traffic in Salvador did not go well. Gridlock paralyzed the entire city. Street hawkers were displaying American flags and other apparel featuring red, white, and blue. Locals also took advantage of the closed streets and set up impromptu soccer pitches on the asphalt. Music was blasting and even some capoeira practitioners were out to take part in the excitement. It was a beautiful day. Plus the Argentina versus Switzerland match was still raging into overtime. Fans skipped from bar to bar as they approached the stadium in order to catch fleeting glimpses of the game on flat screens. Despite the low scoring matches thus far in the knockout rounds, they have all been nail biters, and World Cup fever has climbed accordingly.
The military and police came out in force around the Arena Fonte Nova, and I needed to scurry in and out of surrounding favelas to get close to the stadium. American fans once again decked themselves out in patriotic gear and costumes. There were eagles, pilgrims, Statues of Liberties, Super Men, Wonder Women, Captain Americas, and many more. American fans really outdid themselves this entire World Cup. Not that the Belgium fans were not completely outdone. Devil masks abounded as well as a Smurf or two. Locals cheered for everyone as they marched on the stadium. The costuming and general Bacchanal made me feel like I was attending a nationalistic Carnival.
Before the opening whistle was blown, I headed back down to the ocean to check out the FIFA Fan Fest sitting at the foot of the Barra Lighthouse. I generally disapprove of these enclosed corporate futebal fiefdoms, but this one was not to be missed. It was perched at the tip of the Barra peninsula, right at the feet of the Barra Lighthouse and the Santo Antônio da Barra Fort, Brazil's oldest military structure, first built in 1534. The sun set behind the crowd throughout the scoreless first half of the US-Belgium match. It was a spectacular setting. Cool ocean breezes soothed the crowd, and there were even a few local food stands. It was the first time I ever saw non-corporate sponsors operate inside a FIFA Fan Fest. Hopefully this will become more widespread at future World Cups.
During halftime I hopped a cab to Salvador's historic city center, known locally as the Pelourinho. From here Portugal used to rule its Brazilian colony. Now it's a major tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Locals were out in the street watching the game and waiting for fans to descend upon the area once the match let out. The Arena Fonte Nova is only a short walk away from this center of Bahian music and culture. On a small side street I painfully watched the USA team melt away in overtime. It was a great showing to make it out of the Group of Death, but I felt a bit disappointed: I had let myself fantasize about a USA verse Brazil final. Soon thereafter fans flooded the Pelourinho. It would have been a wilder party if USA had won, but everyone was still caught up in the spirit of the games and danced the night away on the cobblestone streets.