SALVADOR, BRAZIL – The day had finally arrived. This was the whole point of booking a plane ticket less than a month ago and deciding to come down to Brazil at the last minute (besides, of course, the experience of traveling to a new place). This was the day I would finally be stepping foot inside the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador to watch a World Cup quarterfinal match – Costa Rica vs. the Netherlands.
It was certainly the surprise quarterfinal matchup and not one that anyone would have predicted before the tournament started. Regardless of the matchup, I was pumped and excited. 5:00pm local time couldn’t come soon enough. I was going to be inside the stadium and watching a World Cup match live!
As a neutral, I decided to throw my support behind Costa Rica as they were the clear underdog and the Cinderella story of this World Cup. My friends Joe and Diana did the same. Carla, on the other hand, was hoping for a Netherlands victory as they would be more likely to defeat Argentina in the semifinal – apparently, when you support Brazil, your first thought after “Go Brazil!” is “Down with Argentina!” All that said, I still expected Costa Rica to put up a fight, but go down rather handily in the end.
We spent the morning and afternoon walking through the Old Town Pelourinho section of Salvador and passed by a whole square that had been taken over by the Dutch contingent of fans. We also passed by a lot of other fans in orange jerseys or with Dutch flags. On the flip side, I only needed two hands to count the total number of Costa Rica supporters that I spotted while walking around town. I figured that we would be drastically outnumbered inside the stadium with the majority cheering on the Dutch. We walked 15 minutes from Pelourinho to the stadium, and my eyes lit up when I saw the Fonte Nova and the crowd of people around it. After making it through security, through gates, and up four flights of stairs, we finally made it to our seats in section 410, pretty much at the center of the pitch.
It was a terrific atmosphere inside the stadium and soon everyone around me started singing “Ole! Ole, ole, ole! Ticos, Ticos!” I don’t know if it was just our section, but it seemed like most of the stadium – at the least in terms of the neutrals, was rooting for Costa Rica. All the cheers and songs for Costa Rica were LOUD. There were a few Mexican fans seated next to us and they were of course cheering for the Ticos – or possibly against the country who knocked their team out in the previous round.
As the FIFA anthem played and the teams walked out, the crowd roared in anticipation. The players lined up and we all stood as the national anthems of the two nations played. Even though I didn’t know either anthem, there’s just something special about them and anticipating a competitive international match that will soon follow. Afterward, the captains gave a message against racism. Finally, it was time for kick-off.
The match itself started pretty cagey. As expected, the Dutch controlled the majority of possession while Costa Rica remained organized and soaked up pressure. Barely five minutes into the game, the stadium whistled and booed when the Dutch passed it back to their keeper to recycle possession. Within 10 minutes, the section next to ours tried to get the Wave started, possibly out of boredom. After a few attempts, they finally succeeded and the Wave made it around the whole stadium quite a few times before finally dying down. The match went on and there were few in the way of chances at first. Every time Arjen Robben touched the ball, I could hear the boos and whistles around the stadium. I guess he was targeted for that treatment for his antics and his penchant for diving.
Eventually, the Dutch fashioned some chances, and Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas was on hand to repel them. Every so often, the crowd joined in unison to sing “Ole! Ole, ole, ole! Neymar, Neymar!” Even in a game that didn’t involve Brazil, the Brazilians – and everyone else – showed support to their fallen star.
As the match wore on, the gap in quality showed as the Dutch controlled the play. For the most part, though, the Costa Rica defense held firm, and when they were breached, Navas continued to bail the Ticos out with a string of fine saves. He certainly deserved his Man of the Match award that night. The woodwork played its part as well. As the game progressed later and later and still tied at 0-0, the roar for Costa Rica intensified as the crowd recognized the effort and fight they put in to stay in the game against the much more fancied Dutch side.
As the end of 90 minutes neared, the action picked up – mostly with the Dutch getting a few great chances to win the game at the death, including van Persie’s shot that was cleared off the line by a defender. The whistle blew for full-time, and we got treated to at least an extra 30 minutes of soccer.
During extra time, the situation was intense, with the anticipation that any goal scored would surely hold up as the winner. Both teams had chances, although it was clear the Ticos had tired legs. There were loud groans throughout the stadium when Costa Rica’s moves broke down due to errant passes. When Costa Rica had a chance near the end, the whole stadium rose as one with the possibility of witnessing history, but alas, the goal never came. The whistle blew. The match ended 0-0. Penalties awaited and we all watched in anticipation, wondering if the Dutch would hold their nerve, or if Costa Rica would pull off a famous victory via the lottery of the shootout.
When Tim Krul stopped the final Costa Rica penalty and the Dutch team triumphantly ran across the field to celebrate, the stadium roared not just for the Dutch victory, but equally as much for the fight that Costa Rica put up, both in this game and the whole tournament. Even if the Ticos fell short, they can leave this World Cup with their heads held high. One nice gesture took place when a boisterous Costa Rica fan leading the Tico cheers swapped his jersey with another fan in a Brazilian jersey a couple of rows up. It was a moment to show what soccer is all about – respect, passion, and love for the game no matter the result on the field.
I’m still in awe that I am down here in Brazil, and I was inside the stadium to watch an actual match – a quarterfinal no less, in which history was close to being made had Costa Rica pulled through. While it would’ve been nice to see some goals, it was still a pretty exciting and enthralling 0-0 draw and penalty shootout. Quite simply, it’s a dream come true – to see a World Cup match live in Brazil. It may only have been one match, but it was totally worth the trip down here, no matter the cost. Along with proving to be a good luck charm for the host nation, this was the highlight of my trip and a memory that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Editor’s note: Travels In Brazil is a series of articles written by Jameson Lam, who is in Brazil for the tournament, where he tries to capture the mood, atmosphere and spirit of the World Cup, to share it with the readers of World Soccer Talk. Read the other articles in the Travels In Brazil series.