The Bahia beach beckons days before the World Cup draw takes place in Brazil. (Grant Wahl)
COSTA DO SAUÍPE, Brazil — “Here is your wristband, sir,” said Mateus at the front desk at my Bahia beach hotel. “Everything is all-inclusive: the restaurants, the drinks, everything.”
I thought I came to work as a journalist at the World Cup draw. Turns out the FIFA media hotel (which SI paid for) is part of the most audacious boondoggle I’ve ever covered. We’re located about an hour’s drive up the coast from Salvador in the Northeastern part of Brazil. I’ve had friends who came here on their honeymoon, and now I think I know why.
But we’ll soldier on here ahead of Friday’s draw (ESPN2, 11:30 a.m. ET). And today’s blog post gives me the opportunity to talk a little bit about what I’ve seen in Brazil this week.
Penalty box art lines the living room wall of a Brazilian journalist's apartment. (Grant Wahl)
Before coming up here, I spent the last two days in São Paulo, the megalopolis where the U.S. will be based during the World Cup. (The U.S. will train at São Paulo FC.) It’s always good to get a better feel for a country’s soccer culture and figure out how things work on the ground, so I stayed at the same hotel where I’m planning to be for the World Cup group stage and met up with a few local journalists for a magazine article.
Soccer memorabilia at a restaurant in Sao Paulo. (Grant Wahl)
My early verdict: We’re going to get along just fine, Brazil. São Paulo, as you might expect, is a great soccer town. I had lunch with editors from Placar, Brazil’s top *futebol* magazine, at São Cristóvão, a fantastic soccer-themed restaurant with classic Brazilian soccer photographs and memorabilia filling every inch of the walls. (One question from the bemused Brazilians: “What is it about this Freddy Adu? He barely played here for Bahia.”)
I had an enthralling conversation about Brazil, the World Cup and the protest movement with journalist sensei Juca Kfouri, whose classy apartment included a simple but elegant outline of a soccer penalty box on his living room wall and a glorious view from his home office overlooking the Pacaembu stadium.
I learned some new Brazilian soccer words: A player who dives a lot is "cai-cai", while the table soccer game we call foosball has different names in various parts of Brazil. In São Paulo it’s called "pebolim"; in Rio de Janeiro it’s "rio totô" and in Porto Alegre it’s "fla-flu" (which is odd, since Fla-Flu is the big club rivalry between Flamengo and Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, not Porto Alegre).
I had a caipirinha and a pizza at Posto 6 in Vila Madalena, which was bustling with restaurant and bar-goers even on a Tuesday night. And I explored the leafy neighborhood around my hotel in Higienópolis, where there’s a nice shopping mall (and the ubiquitous Starbucks), several pleasant cafés and apartment-dwellers walking their dogs. (You still have to be wary for your safety when you walk on the sidewalks, especially at night, but it’s not like it was at the last World Cup in Johannesburg, where you couldn’t risk walking on residential sidewalks in just about any part of the city.)
Scottish correspondent Andrew Downie was even kind enough to invite me to an informal dinner party at his house, not having met me before or knowing that it was my 40th birthday. (Thanks again, Andrew!)
One thing I wasn’t able to do during my 36 hours in São Paulo was attend a game, unfortunately, though the Brazilian club Ponte Preta was staying in my hotel ahead of Wednesday night’s first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final against Argentina’s Lanús.
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When people say they live and breathe soccer here, they mean it. At a nearby grocery store I encountered a Christmas tree decorated with ornament soccer balls and ornament Santas wearing Brazil national team jerseys. Brazilian players like Neymar and Thiago Silva are everywhere in billboards and advertisements, as is national team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, aka Big Phil, the 2002 World Cup-winning manager who looks and coaches like Gene Hackman in "Hoosiers."
Not everyone speaks English, but hey, I don’t speak Portuguese, and nearly everyone I’ve met has had a ready smile. It’s impossible not to smile back.