World Cup Diary: Brazil reinventing, redefining itself one step at a time

SALVADOR, Brazil —

Brazil wasn’t what I had expected. I’ve been here three weeks now, covering the United States men’s national team across this vast and diverse country, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

The image was strikingly similar to that of the country where I covered the last World Cup, South Africa: A shambolic government that couldn’t get anything done by a deadline, inflicting crippling poverty lived in rambling shantytowns, in a country ruled only by lawlessness. But as it was in South Africa, most construction in Brazil has been completed, or at least looked the part, and I’ve never once felt unsafe.

Sao Paulo, where the United States and its press corps have been based, is a confusing place. There is no containing its sprawl, all of it infested with boxy apartment towers — invariably with terraces adorned with flapping Brazilian flags — pricking the blue sky. The traffic is soul-crushing. On a bad day, you can average less than five miles an hour in your cab or bus. Some days, early in our stay, the subway workers were on strike and it was worse still and you just stood there, thousands of running cars frozen in place.

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Exploring the Amazon River in Manaus, Brazil

MANAUS, Brazil – Driving through this place, there’s no telling that Manaus is perhaps the world’s unlikeliest metropolis – a city of almost 2 million nestled in the very heart of the Amazon rainforest, reachable only by boat and plane.

When the American press corps arrived here in the slipstream of the United States men’s national soccer team on Saturday afternoon, one member pointed out that the heat and cloaking humidity felt no different than Houston’s. Another added that it looked kind of like Tallahassee.

So on a sweltering Sunday morning, many hours before the USA played Portugal in their second World Cup game, a few FOX Sports colleagues and I decided to leave the city that looks like any other city and check out the Amazon River.

Sure, this place is infested with mosquitos, yellow fever, undrinkable tap water and a few other afflictions I can’t remember off the top of my head. And the river is full of crocodiles and snakes and water-borne diseases. But there’s a nice ring to the headline: Man falls into Amazon, eaten by piranhas before he has chance to drown. What a way to go.

We got in a cab and headed for the harbor. It was lined by endless stands selling the same knockoff Brazil merchandise – thousands of the exact same jerseys. Large-bellied men and women lazed against walls or lay on the sidewalk, waiting on buses or God knows what. In the water, dozens of tiny motor boats with red awnings bobbed perilously in the wake. Yup, we were getting onto one of those.

After haggling with some broker or other, we were escorted to our little death trap. Four rows of two seats on a metal boat no more than a foot deep. Our captain, wearing a Brazil jersey of course, introduced himself as Elvis Presley. No man has ever looked less like Elvis Presley.

But as he cut our little boat hard into the waves, riding practically sideways and sending us grappling for any sort of solid object to grab hold of, he did blast Brazilian pop music from his stereo. His rearview mirror had a little Brazilian flag flapping from it. So did his steering wheel.

Once he’d sped out past the favela by the harbor and weaved through the freight ships that were either very modern or frightfully archaic, we realized the only life jacket on board seemed to be the one strapped around Elvis’s seat. Swell. (We eventually spotted four more affixed to the bottom of the awning – for eight passengers in all.)

He took us to a floating gas station to fill up. It even had a little convenience store on board. Our musclebound cameraman Mario climbed off the boat, went in, and, because he is a genius, re-emerged with beer. I only had one – because, you know, professionalism.

We got out to the open water, where you got a feel for the Amazon’s vastness. It is contained by nothing; it is devoid of banks for the most part. It spreads deep into the low brush that frames it, creating endless little waterways between the submerged trees. Towering clouds form over the sodden coastline, but not the open water itself. Not even the skies can cover the water.

Elvis took us to the point where the black Rio Negro and white Rio Solimões meet to form the Amazon River, where they collide and mingle like a chocolate-vanilla ice cream swirl.

Our boat passed entire villages built on stilts. Tiny tin shacks with outhouses and porches and kids playing and dogs running around on them, with restaurants and cafes and shops nearby. Entire lives lived on the water. A long fishing canoe met us in one of many passages through the tightly-knit brush, leaving only just enough water for our little boat to pass through. A little boy held a baby crocodile, a teenager a snake. Mario, because he has a death wish, wanted a picture with the crocodile, eagerly taking it from the boy. Michael, our laddish English-Brazilian fixer – sorry: “location consultant” – then had to kiss the crocodile, because that would make a good picture to show off to his pals in London.

On the way back, just as we were about to across the unfathomably wide stretch of water, Mario kept asking how deep the water was, how dangerous it was. He was up to something. And then, suddenly, Mario, because he has a death wish, stripped down to his underwear, asked Elvis to stop the boat, and dove off it headfirst. Getting back to our drifting boat took him a good while. The heavy current kept him almost stationary as he swam hard.

Mario made it back, climbing on and slipping back into his clothes, eager to see the pictures and videos of that time he swam in the Amazon River. The Brazil jerseys came back into view. Soon enough, Elvis docked – or banged into other boats until he’d found a spot to moor, more like.

We ambled back onto the rickety pontoon. Even if we were soaked on whatever side of us had faced the side of the boat, we had survived. Maybe check back on Mario in a few weeks though.