(A few weeks ago in Boston I met Nate Waters, who plays soccer for Principia College in Illinois, near St. Louis. He told me he was catching a few matches in Brazil, and I said I was extremely jealous. I was curious what a college player would find interesting about being at the World Cup and made him promise to write. Here is his second report from Chile-Spain in Rio on June 18.)
By Nate Waters
Technically this game was played in a neutral location. However, anyone in that stadium would have told you it was a home match for Chile. With 70,000 fans in the stands, you might have seen a few seats where people were not standing up screaming at the top of their lungs; those were the Spanish supporters.
Hours before the team even arrived at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the Chileans were dancing in the streets, posing with La Policia and searching for anyone sporting a Spain jersey so they could surround them with flags and chant, “Chee Chee Chee! Lay Lay Lay! Vive Chile!”.
With Chile neighboring Brazil, I learned that a majority of the supporters are caravanning through the host country to watch La Roja. Their next stop will be São Paulo when Chile takes on the Netherlands to see who will ultimately win Group B.
Spain was the first team to begin warming up, and right from the start I thought that they had the game in the bag. Watching players like David Silva, Iniesta, Xavi, and the other big names we all know move the ball with such pace and precision, I couldn’t believe that the Chilean midfield would even be able to touch the ball at all. Then, as I am turned around, taking a photo for a couple behind me, the stadium erupted into cheer as La Roja jogged out onto the pitch. The Chilean 12th man was fierce, and most likely around 65,000 people shouting in unison.
As the first half progressed and Spain could not manage to put together more than five passes, it was unbelievable to watch the same midfielders for Barcelona and Real Madrid just turn the ball over so easily. The final pass that they had executed so many times before in the Euro and World Cup just was not there. It just did not feel right to watch Iniesta pass it straight into the Chilean defense.
Every Spanish touch was preceded by none other than a record-setting decibel level of relentless whistling from the Chileans to show their disapproval. And when Chile would string together a few passes, the crowd would sing “Olé” in unison for each successive pass, almost helping the players break down the defense, find the open man and diminish the Spanish mentality.
I was also in shock by the choices by Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque, when he subbed in Fernando Torres to aid the non-existent office. Torres just is no longer a top-class striker. With his rather mediocre career at Chelsea and relatively no impact on the first game in Rio, I could not believe that del Bosque had not chosen David Villa. Villa single-handedly carried Spain’s offense in the 2010 World Cup, and although some argue he is past his prime, he just came off of a La Liga title and UEFA Champions League Final with Atletico Madrid. Yet he sat on the bench and watched the team he scored so many goals for lose to the underdog and be eliminated from a tournament in which they were a favorite.
While most likely every broadcaster, writer and analyst picked Spain to stroll through the group, it turns out that in a breezy Brazilian stadium, it was a good night to be Chilean.
Germany-Portugal, June 16
By Nate Waters
We left three hours before kick-off, and arrived at the stadium six minutes into the game. We all thought we would find our seats in plenty of time, watch the players warm up, and scream with the German fans the national anthem that we had looked up on our phone the night before. But when people walking on the highway make more progress than you in a car, you know that the supporters will do anything to see their team. Our taxi driver just parked the car in the middle of the street and yelled at us in Portuguese to run down the hill and to the right towards Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil.
The Portuguese national anthem had finished and the game started as we were receiving a less-than-thorough pat down at security. Although the tickets clearly stated we were not allowed to bring food into the stadium, the bag of Oreos in my sister’s purse made it through just fine as we sprinted up the 7 flights of stairs to our seats.
Watching the game, it was obvious that Germany was going to win. They play with a sense of conviction, a mental discipline where one or two goals is never enough. When most teams would sit back after having a 2-0 lead, the German’s continued to attack by pushing the ball out wide to players like Mesut Özil who can place the ball wherever he likes inside the eighteen.
Also, it helps when one of the star Portuguese players, Pepe, decides to head-butt Mueller after his hand grazed the German forward’s cheek earning Pepe a red card. At that point, the Portuguese fans behind us packed up their flag, stopped the singing, and went straight to the concession stand to grab a beer.
The German fans loved it, especially because of their disdain for Pepe and Ronaldo after Real Madrid, the Spanish club team who they both play for, eliminated in humiliating fashion Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal just two months earlier in Germany.
The second half was the same story. Cristiano Ronaldo shanked two free kicks, and the third one well within his range only had one German defender in the wall; almost baiting Ronaldo to put the ball on net and restore some of the pride for the Balon D’Or winner.
A World Cup game is one of the most surreal experiences any sports fan could have. The field is a golf green, primed to be shredded with spikes-up tackles and blasts from 30 yards out. It is eleven players attempting to play with one mind, and a manager limited to a spray-painted box ready to scream at every call regardless of who committed the foul.
Ten goals have already been scored in the Arena Fonte Nova from the Spain-Netherlands blowout and the German 4-0 victory. When France takes on Switzerland in the same stadium, it’s unlikely that one team will score more than four goals. The stadium has certainly marked itself as one of the premier places to watch the World Cup in just the first round of group play.
(Nate was at Chile-Spain in Maracanã on Wednesday.)
Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.