My ‘Brazil Beat’ posts from the 2014 World Cup

Throughout the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Associated Press reporters filed dispatches about happenings in and around and country. Here is a collection of mine from my three-and-a-half week assignment in the Sao Paulo region:

July 4 –

ABOARD SWISS AIR FLIGHT LX093 (AP) _ Disheartened Swiss fans returning to Zurich after their country’s 1-0 World Cup loss to Argentina could at least take comfort in one parting treat _ they were flying home with their beloved team.
Faces perked up at the departure gate moments before boarding when coach Ottmar Hitzfeld and his players strode in. Some stopped to sign autographs and briefly mingled with fans still sporting the team’s red paraphernalia.
On board, the players were greeted with champagne and a Swiss-decorated football was draped in a team scarf. Swiss flags were placed inside the cabin and each player’s name appeared on his designated business class seat.
Fans quickly snapped selfies with the players, and once everyone was seated, the captain of Swiss Air flight LX093 _ even before announcing the duration and altitude _ welcomed the team aboard and said the country was proud of their valiant effort against the heavily favored Argentines.
Most players were not eager to speak to a reporter. Others said the memory of Angel di Maria’s crushing 118th minute goal was still too fresh.
“We have to try and forget it,” said defender Johan Djourou. “When you lose that way, it is always hard.”
Midfielder Valon Behrami said that the team would have much preferred to be on a different flight this day _ to a quarterfinal match against Belgium in Brasilia.
“Now everyone has to go to holiday,” he said shortly before takeoff. “That is it.”
Mario Stalder, a 46-year-old fan from Bern, said flying home with the team offered a fitting coda to his three-week journey in Brazil. Still, he would gladly have forgone the experience in favor of another.
“I would rather they won the game,” he said.
_ By Aron Heller _

July 1 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ The chant resonates throughout the bleachers: “Sui-ca, Sui-ca.”
It’s the Portuguese word for Switzerland, and those cheering on the Swiss in Tuesday’s World Cup round of 16 game are not European fans draped in red but rather dozens of locals dressed in their national team’s traditional yellow. The reason for their newfound affection for the Swiss? Their opponent of the day _ hated South American rival Argentina.
“It’s nice. We are a little country and we need all the support we can get,” said Peter Adolf, a 32-year-old fan from Bern, Switzerland. “But we know is it because they hate Argentina.”
_ By Aron Heller _

June 30 –

SAO PAULO _ Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella may have the best player in the world but that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate the talents of others.
Speaking before his team’s second round matchup against Switzerland, Sabella was asked to compare his own Lionel Messi to Brazil star Neymar.
“I think both players are amazing players,” he said. “Messi is the best in the world. Neymar is a great player and of course with players like these the teams depends on them.”
He also complemented fellow Latin American countries Columbia and Costa Rica for what many consider to be their surprising runs to the quarterfinals. Sabella said he was not among those caught off guard.
“It’s true that they don’t have (injured star Radamel) Falcao right now but I think that (Columbia’s coach) has been able to compensate very well. He has players who are really good, such as James (Rodriguez), so Columbia is a very tough team,” he said.
Regarding Costa Rica, Sabella said they were in the toughest group of the tournament, along with Uruguay, Italy and England.
“I think it was even worse than the group with Chile, the Netherlands and Spain and you know why? Because Costa Rica was there … They were the fourth team in that group but they had a special asset,” he said. “Some people are very surprised. For me, it hasn’t been that big a surprise.”
– By Aron Heller –

June 29 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ With Sao Paulo gripped in World Cup fever, all sorts of people are adorned in yellow and green Brazil team gear. But dogs?
At Parque Trainon, dog owners appear to have imposed their loyalties on their four-legged friends. Dogs of all shapes and sizes have been spotted with Brazilian flags around their collars, capes over the shoulders, even hats wrapped around their floppy ears.
One canine, 4-year-old Nino, had a blue Brazil outfit wrapped around his small body. His owner said it was to protect against a rash. But she had no medical excuse for the baseball cap over his head. It was her son’s idea of showing support after Brazil won a penalty shootout with Chile.
Nino’s Sunday morning playmate, a 6-year-old mutt named Nina, had more straightforward attire: a plain yellow jumper featuring Neymar’s No. 10.
“I think it’s cute,” said her owner, Luiza Jatoba, 54. “It’s in honor of the World Cup. These days it’s the only thing we think about.”
_ By Aron Heller _

June 28 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ Sao Paulo’s typically raucous Avenida Paulista was particularly subdued Saturday morning.
“I’m very nervous,” said Munuel Freitas, a 21-year-old Brazilian quietly standing outside a major shopping center adorned with a giant flag of Brazil. “Chile is not an easy team. It is going to be difficult.”
All along the thoroughfare there were equally jittery Brazilians preparing to watch their country’s first World Cup knockout game. As kickoff time approached, the streets emptied as rabid fans flocked to bars, restaurants _ and mostly the sanctuary of their own homes. Aside from the Elvis impersonator belting out drawled hits in a Brazilian-themed jumpsuit, all was quiet as pedestrians seemed to be consumed by their own thoughts.
“I want them to win, of course, but I don’t trust our team,” said Daniela Arce, 38, wearing the almost mandatory yellow Brazil team jersey. “They think they are all stars, and we think we are the greatest, and we have to win because we are home. But most of the World Cups we did not win.”
She likened the political atmosphere around the games to that at the 1970 tournament, when a Brazil title lifted the spirit of a country in the middle of a military dictatorship. Should Brazil lose, many fear that the wide scale protests that accompanied the heavily criticized preparations will resume.
_ By Aron Heller _

June 26 –

SAO PAULO (AP) — Nothing says Brazil quite like Havaianas.
The world-famous brand of rubber and plastic flip-flops, with the little Brazilian flag on its strap, has become the country’s most popular export and a must-have for any visiting tourist.
So naturally during this World Cup, the company’s concept store on upscale Rua Oscar Freire has become a pilgrimage of sorts for fans.
Havaianas has adjusted accordingly, launching a line of flip-flops with designs honoring each of the 12 host cities. Even more of a draw is a wall devoted to versions featuring various World Cup teams, with their national flags replacing the trademark one of Brazil. England, Germany and Spain are there, of course, but also Bosnia-Herzegovina and non-World Cup qualifiers like Angola, New Zealand, Peru and Ireland.
In town for his country’s final group game against South Korea, 46-year-old Belgian fan Wim Desmedt was decked out in full gear: a team jersey, a black-red-yellow scarf around his neck and even frames to his glasses with the team colors.
Only one thing was missing to complete the outfit — the Belgium-inspired Havaianas in his hands.
“If you say Belgium, people think beer, chocolate and waffles,” he said. “When you think of Brazil, it’s samba, beaches and Havaianas.”
Once a staple of the poor, Havaianas have now become a trendy favorite worldwide for all classes. Although “havaianas” means Hawaiian in Portuguese, the flip-flops have come to symbolize Brazil — especially since 1998 when a new line was introduced with the small Brazilian flag to show support for the team before the World Cup in France.
Now other nations can do the same.
— By Aron Heller —

SAO PAULO (AP) _ South Korean coach Hong Myung-Bo says he believes in his players, not in a higher power.
Facing extremely long odds of advancing to the round of 16 going into a matchup with heavily favored Belgium, the stone-faced coach managed to break a smile when asked if he was relying on any divine intervention to help the team through.
As it turns out, the former captain for South Korea’s semifinal run at its home World Cup in 2002 isn’t big on that.
“I don’t have a religion so I don’t ask for divine help. I just look at my players and I believe in them,” he said. “Of course, there are players who have a religion and that could be a way that they get help as well.”
Earlier in the news conference, he was asked by a journalist is he could provide South Korea with a “miracle.”
“We will do what we can,” he said plainly. “I don’t know if you can call it a miracle but we will have to wait for the results.”
_ By Aron Heller _

June 25 –

SAO PAULO _ There’s really only one place along Sao Paulo’s hectic Avenida Paulista, where you can escape the constant noise of traffic and the hurried movement of people. But even inside the tranquil confines of Paroquia Sao Luis Gonzaga church you still can’t entirely get away from the football fever engulfing Brazil.
Inside the chapel, worshippers kneel in silence. But on one of the empty pews there is a church brochure explaining its World Cup related activities and the public debate surrounding the event.
In the back of the church, discount clothing is being sorted for the needy and a small TV with an antenna is broadcasting a fuzzy image of the Argentina-Nigeria game. Oohs and aahs are heard as Lionel Messi does his magic.
For some, the football obsession goes too far.
“Here in Brazil, everything is about football and that’s why I don’t like it. It’s too much,” said Greta Santos, 21, who came to the church for some quiet after her lunch break.
_ By Aron Heller –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ No matter where you go in this massive city, you seemingly can’t get far away from soccer. Wherever you look, people are watching it and kids are playing it.
At first glance, Parque Ibirapuera appears to be no exception. Sao Paulo’s answer to New York’s Central Park is filled with locals kicking balls across long stretches of grass and inside enclosed dirt fields. The guards at the gate are watching World Cup matches on an iPhone.
But deeper inside the 545-acre park, finally another sport is revealed. About a dozen boys and girls are playing basketball on two concrete courts with chain-link nets. The scene is similar to any outdoor court you’d see in America _ boys with baggy shorts posting up, driving to the rim and talking trash. But there’s still a Brazilian twist: One of the younger boys is shooting hoops with a black and white soccer ball, not an orange basketball.
When asked if basketball was also popular in the land of football, one smiled, made a gesture with his fingers and said: “a little.”
_ By Aron Heller –

June 24 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ There are plenty of cool places to watch a World Cup match in Brazil, but for Dutch fan Jan Eykma, this is as good as it gets: a beer in hand, a big screen ahead and a legendary stadium as a backdrop.
On the final day of his personal World Cup adventure, and after watching his beloved Netherlands secure first place in Group B with a victory over Chile, the 46-year-old Dutchman decided to take in some history and visited Sao Paulo’s Museu Do Futebol. Nestled into historic Pacaembu Stadium, the museum houses hundreds of photos, game balls and other artifacts tracing the game’s history in Brazil. There are items belonging to Pele, Garrincha and others. There’s even an interactive section where you can kick a virtual penalty shot.
After the nostalgic visit, Eykma said it was extra special to watch Italy play Uruguay on a screen placed just in front of the concrete steps leading up to the pitch that hosted several games of the 1950 World Cup.
“It’s perfect. It doesn’t get much better than this,” he said with a smile. “It’s just such a great place to watch. The environment, the stadium.”
_ By Aron Heller _

June 23 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ Fans sporting Chile’s red and the Netherlands’ orange streamed into Itaquerao Stadium on Monday. But it was another color they had on their minds: yellow.
With both teams having already comfortably advanced to the next round, even the most loyal fans were less interested in the opponent of the day but rather who they would face next. The consensus? Avoid host Brazil at any cost.
Even though Brazil has not impressed thus far, its vast experience and home field advantage is something to fear, said Jeroen Klink, a 51-year-old Dutch fan wearing the No. 10 jersey of star midfielder Wesley Sneijder.
“Brazil would be really tough. They are still growing into the tournament,” he said. “There is lots of pressure to avoid Brazil.”
The second-place team will meet the winner of Group A _ probably the host nation, depending on its result against Cameroon _ with the group winner likely facing an easier time against either Croatia or Mexico. A smoother path to the later stages of the tournament looms as well.
While a draw would be enough for the Dutch, Chile has to win to finish on top. Its fans are feeling even more pressure.
“We don’t want to play Brazil,” said Enrique Lanzerini, 35, from Santiago. “Chile always loses to Brazil. Anyone else Chile can beat, but not Brazil. It’s psychological.”
Amid the sea of red and orange, a spattering of yellow jerseys could also be seen in the stands _ hometown fans on hand to enjoy the showdown and scope out their next opponent.
Lais Romao, a 61-year-old Brazilians from Americana, said he figured most of the locals would be pulling for the orange.
“Holland is better than Chile, but in football anything can happen,” he said. “Holland has eliminated us before, so I prefer Chile _ they are afraid to play us.”
_ By Aron Heller _

June 22 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ With his team already comfortably qualified for the round of 16, and only positioning at stake in a matchup with Chile, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal turned his attention to World Cup games at large, saying he was pleased with the offensive brand of football seen so far.
“The forwards are proving themselves here, especially the strikers who play in European leagues. They’ve all scored, more than once,” he said Sunday.
Van Gaal had particularly warm words for German striker Miroslav Klose, his former player at Bayern Munich, who with a goal against Ghana on Saturday tied Brazilian great Ronaldo as the top career World Cup scorer with 15.
“That is very impressive,” Van Gaal said. “I congratulate him.”
Van Gaal noted that Klose “comes on for two minutes _ he’s done it for me too_ and scores.”
_ By Aron Heller _

June 21 –

SAO PAULO _ At first glance, the three woman checking their reflections against the Plexiglas of a bus stop in downtown Sao Paulo appeared to merely be applying red lipstick. But upon closer examination, the true outfit emerged _ a black, yellow and red ensemble to express their support for the German team at the World Cup. In addition to black slacks and red lipstick, the women were wearing the team shirts and scarfs as well. And then there as the kicker _ fingernails alternatively painted red, yellow and black.
An even bigger surprise emerged when the women revealed that they weren’t actually from Germany, but rather homegrown Brazilians.
“I love German football and I love Germany,” said Kathleen Godoy, 20.
She said her father was from Germany and that Brazil’s eclectic mix of ethic backgrounds produced a variety of football loyalties.
“Even if Brazil played Germany in the final, I would still root for Germany,” she said.
– By Aron Heller –

June 20 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ They say that football is a religion in Brazil. So when the World Cup is being played on home soil, actual religions have to make some adjustments.
Even before embarking on the traditional prayers to welcome the Jewish sabbath, Rabbi Ruben Sternschein had an important announcement to make: Monday’s upcoming evening service at the Congregacao Israelita Paulista synagogue was being pushed back 45 minutes so that congregants could make it in time after Brazil’s game against Cameroon.
Only then was it time for the congregation to begin its usual Friday night service.
_ By Aron Heller _

CAMPINAS, Brazil (AP) _ The most scrutinized knee in the World Cup was on display again Friday as Cristiano Ronaldo practiced with his Portugal teammates. And that was all anyone could talk about at the team’s base in Campinas, with scores of cameras zooming in on the reigning world player of the year’s every move, twitch and gesture.
Team officials sighed when asked about the status of Ronaldo, who has been struggling with a leg injury since before the tournament. Even for a team used to having all the attention on its star player, the media madness appeared to be weighing on Portugal.
At the team’s news conference, the majority of the questions were about Ronaldo, even though he wasn’t the one answering them.
Teammate Helder Postiga said he was sick of it.
“After the training today there were 10 players applying ice on themselves. We used three bags of ice! That cannot be a reason to create so many rumors about Cristiano,” he said. “Cristiano is training; he’s fine. He is going to be important for us. He is going to help the team. We all have a common goal. Ice is just an exercise, something normal after training. You need to take it more naturally.”
_ By Aron Heller _

June 19 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ For the throngs of English and Uruguayan fans streaming into Itaquerao Stadium on Thursday, there was only one topic of conversation: Luis Suarez.
The Uruguay star and Liverpool striker returned from injury for the critical match between the two countries. Sure enough, he scored both of Uruguay’s goals in its 2-1 win.
Suarez, who scored a Premier League-leading 31 goals in England this past season, hasn’t played since May 11. He underwent surgery on his left knee 11 days later.
“I’m worried about Suarez. I’m a Man U fan _ he always causes us lots of trouble,” said 35-year-old Londoner Sam Sandif before the game. “He’s the player who can do some damage. I hope we kick him hard early.”
As a Liverpool fan, 45-year-old Nick Staples said he was partial to Suarez. But he wasn’t too concerned about the player’s well-being on this day.
“I hope we beat them 5-0 and Suarez goes off the field in a fit of tears. Today, I couldn’t give a (expletive) about Suarez,” Staples said, smiling.
Maria Belen, 24-year-old Uruguay fan, was sporting fake eyelashes the color of the country’s blue and white flag.
“Suarez knows how to play England,” she said. “We have Suarez _ he is everything.”
_ By Aron Heller _

June 17 –

SAO PAULO (AP) _ Sao Paulo traffic crawls on a typical day. When Brazil is playing a World Cup game, it barely moves.
So workers could get home on time to watch the 4 p.m. match, employers let them leave early, creating an epic traffic jam on major thoroughfare Avenida Paulista and all surrounding streets. It took a half hour to travel four blocks _ a whole hour to complete the requisite U-turn to get off the avenue.
Agitated drivers blared their horns for minutes at a time as pedestrians whizzed by on the sidewalks and enjoyed the street music playing. Everyone on the sidewalk was happy and dressed in yellow. Everyone in the cars was hot and miserable.
Claudio Jose Rodrigues, a taxi driver of nine years, said he’d never seen anything like it before.
“This is different from the first game because that was a holiday,” he said of the opener last Thursday in Sao Paulo against Croatia.
Nelson Davis, a Sao Paulo executive, said he was sending his workers home early and hoped to evade the traffic.
“It’s like Super Bowl Sunday on a weekday,” he said.
_ Aron Heller _

June 16 –

SAO PAULO (AP) – Outside Restaurant Haddock Grill hangs a big flag of Brazil, and a small one of Portugal.
Inside, businessmen in suits and ties are having their lunch break – chattering loudly over their dishes with their eyes glued to the screen above the buffet offering. Portugal is playing its first World Cup game, and the mood suddenly turns dour as the team surrenders its second goal of the first half, en route to a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Germany.
Even though Brazil has been independent from Portugal for nearly two centuries, most of the diners appear partial to the squad of their former colonizers.
“Portugal is in our blood, in our body,” said Andres Szarukan, a 37-year-old business manager for a digital media company. “We still have a lot of families who came from Portugal and the connection is strong.”
Among those are the Martins, the owners of the diner in downtown Sao Paulo who placed the flag outside.
Sandra Martins says her parents were born in Portugal, so naturally their allegiances were to the team of Cristiano Ronaldo – so long as they weren’t playing Brazil. The 38-year-old frowns after Germany scores again.
As the first half comes to a close, the diners shuffle out and reluctantly head back to their offices. Less commotion is expected the next day, when Brazil is set to play again. Most say they’ll skip their business lunch out, leaving work early to catch the afternoon game at home.
– By Aron Heller –

June 14 –

SAO PAULO _ So there’s more than one team from Iran at the World Cup. Aside from those playing on the field, a group of about three dozen journalists from the Islamic Republic are on their own road trip – following the team around the country on a bus organized by the Iranian football federation. After the team’s final training session in Sao Paulo the traveling media circus loaded onto the bus to pick up their gear at the hotel before the long journey south to Curitiba. It’s clear that the joint adventure – they all also flew in from Teheran together – had bonded the gang. Some immediately took off their shoes, placing their feet atop the seats ahead. Others leaned back in their chairs, laughing. Every few minutes someone broke into song in Farsi.
“We are a big family,” said Shervin Gilani, who freelances for the Teheran Times and the Mehr News Agency. “We all hope that Iran will advance. But also all know that will be a big surprise.”
– By Aron Heller –

June 12 –

SAO PAULO _ For a Brazilian, a ticket to the World Cup on home turf is priceless _ even if you are sitting in the last row of the stadium.
“It’s incredible,” said Felipe Turci, an 11-year-old draped in yellow as he peered down upon the rest of Itaquerao Stadium. “It’s beautiful.”
The temporary stands holding nearly 20,000 seats were only recently approved because of safety concerns. They were delayed mostly because of an accident earlier this year. They were installed so the stadium could accommodate the more than 60,000 people for the opener.
Gabriel Ponce, a 21-year-old fan from Sao Paulo, said he was initially hesitant to buy a seat in the questionable grandstands. But now that he was there, his mind was put to rest.
“It doesn’t matter where I sit as long as I am here,” he said. “It is such a unique experience.”
Fernanda Sanchez, also in the last row of the stadium, said she would have preferred to be closer to the action _and potentially safer _ but would take what she could get. At 160 Brazilian real (about $75) she said it was the cheapest ticket available.
“I’m not worried, I’m just happy to be here in this day. One day I can tell my future children that I was here,” she said, before adding with a smile. “If the stands fall, we will all fall together.”
_ By Aron Heller _