In May 1990 I gave up my job to travel around the world. But before I even started, I put on my kilt, strapped on my backpack, bought a Eurorail ticket and went to the World Cup.

I spent three weeks traveling about Italy, watching games, eating and drinking well, and meeting people from all over the world. I had an absolute ball.

When I got to Genoa for Scotland’s first game against Costa Rica the city was quieter than I imagined. But as I got closer to the city centre, the noise level gradually increased until I turned a corner into the main square and the singing hit me. Hundreds of Scots were in the fountain (and thousands more were in the bars round about it). I got right in there.

(See some great pics from Fraser Pettigrew here at his flickr account.)

The atmosphere was a bit more subdued after we lost 1-0 but we cheered up a few days later. Scotland played Sweden and fans from both countries got together in the main square before the game and marched to the ground, led by a few jokers playing pipes and drums. The atmosphere was unbelievable. Anyone who equates football with hooliganism would not have believed their eyes at the friendship between the two groups of fans. (And I’ve seen it many times since.)

We won 2-1 that day and although I had a late train to catch, I wanted to celebrate. (You don’t get many chances to celebrate Scotland winning in the World Cup.) I remember spending the night in the train station, a little bit drunk, but very happy). The boom box playing Rod Stewart’s Greatest Hits never let up all night.

I’ll never forget Scotland breaking our hearts again, losing a late goal on a cold and rainy night in Turin to go down 1-0 to Brazil and get knocked out. Once again, we were so close and yet so far.

I got about a bit between Scotland games. I was there in Naples when Rene Higuita lost the ball to Roger Milla and the Cameroonian pensioner danced with the corner flag. It was so hot the chap stick inside my sporran melted.

I spent an afternoon with The Scotsman hack Aidan Smith and we patiently explained to Napoli fans on a tram that Hibs put five past them when Dino Zoff was their goalie. I juggled oranges outside the Estadio Sao Paolo and made enough to buy pizza and wine.

I bumped into Brazil captain Branco as he went to lay a wreath at Superga, the hill where the Torino team perished in 1949 after their plane crashed into the hillside.

I saw Ireland beat Romania on penalties and played keepie uppie with Brazilians in the main square in Turin. I taught them a thing or two that day.

Most of all, I realised that if you don’t worry too much about the football, you can have a rare good time at the World Cup. It was a realisation that has served me well in the years since.

1986 was the first time I’d ever heard anyone talk about a group of death and naturally, it was Scotland who had the bad luck to be stuck in it. We got West Germany, Denmark and Uruguay; a two-time winner, the most exciting young team in Europe and the hardest of all the South Americans.

I was 19 when the Mexico World Cup came around and I remember spending large parts of the tournament in pubs. The opening match on a Saturday night was, I think, Bulgaria-Italy, and I watched it with a group of pals in an Edinburgh hostelry. It was lovely and sunny outside.

Pubs back then used to offer free pints of beer when Scotland scored a goal or when England conceded one. The breweries weren’t daft. They knew they wouldn’t be handing out huge amounts of alcohol. (Scotland scored one goal in three games and England conceded one.)

We were unfortunate to lose the first game to Denmark and then we were well beaten by Germany in the second. We had to beat Uruguay in the third match to qualify as one of the best third-placed sides.

But even though Uruguay had a man sent off in 55 seconds, still the fastest ever sending off in a World Cup, I believe, we couldn’t score. It was tragic. Tragically predictable.

The 1986 World Cup was to have much more significance for me in the years to come. Just four years later I found myself living in Mexico City and it was a great thrill to visit many of the grounds where Scotland (and others) had played.

The Estadio Azteca remains one of the most exciting places on the planet to watch a big football match. Unlike in some other big grounds such as the Maracana, you’re close to the action and no matter where you sit you get a great view. The noise of the crowd at pitch level was deafening.

And then a good while after that, sometime in early in the new millennium, I managed to interview Charlie Batista, the Uruguayan who was sent off after 55 seconds. We had a coffee in Buenos Aires and like two old mates meeting up after decades apart we reminisced happily about that fateful day.

“I was sent off and walked back to the dressing room,” he told me with a big smile. “When the kit man saw me he went mad. What the hell are you doing here, he screamed. The game’s about to start. Get out there! I’ve been sent off, I told. That’s impossible, he shouted, get back out. It took me 5 minutes to convince him the game had started and I’d already been sent off.”

It was funny then. And it’s funny now. But back in 1986 it was just one more chapter in Scotland’s footballing failure.

 

Ah, 1982. A special year for football fans. The year of Socrates, Zico, Falcao and Cerezo. And Paolo Rossi. A year hindsight has informed us was the year that football died.

Well, to be honest, I missed most of the 1982 World Cup. Or at least I can’t remember most of it. It was a glorious summer, if memory serves. One of the few memories I have is only seeing the last few minutes of Brazil-Argentina or Brazil-Italy because I was out playing golf.

Ah, and of course of those brief moments of excitement when David Narey put Scotland ahead against Brazil. Even he could hardly believe it.

Still, the 1982 World Cup served me well. Since I moved to Brazil I’ve met some of the players (that’s a young me and Zico below) and written about the tournament quite a bit. It still sticks in people’s minds because of the demise of that great Brazil side.

ZIco and meThe best story from the 1982 World Cup is doubtlessly apocryphal but it still deserves telling. Scotland go one-nil up against Brazil and as the Scottish players run to congratulate David Narey on his goal one of them screams at him, “What did you go and do that for? You’ll only make them angry!” As so it came to pass. The goal stung Brazil into action and they scored four without reply against a pretty decent Scotland side. It was football as it was meant to be played.

Second best story from that World Cup has more of a whiiff of truth about it. Scots and Brazilians met on the beach somewhere in Spain and a football match soon started. Brazil were favourites, of course. But the Scots won. 1-0. “We scored a goal and then just kept booting the ball in the sea,” said one Jock.

Ah, whae’s like us?

 

Aregntina ticker tapeSo 1974 ended and Scotland became the first team ever to be knocked out the World Cup without losing a match. It was a classic Scottish ending: Glorious failure. We were to get used to it.

Four years later and the World Cup finals were in South America. We had qualified again and England had not.

When I think back to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina I don’t remember the specifics but the spectacle. Partly because it was on so late. I had to sneak out of bed to watch games that started at 11pm. It wasn’t perfect for a young boy.

And yet it was all so exotic. Globalisation hadn’t been invented and the way they did things on the other side of the world was so different.

There seemed to be a buzz around every stadium and I don’t just mean an excitement but a real actual buzz, a murmur of expectation like everyone was humming and talking at the same time. And the way they greeted the home side every time they took the pitch, with think clouds of ticker tape madness raining down from the stands. It was superb.

After the World Cup ended we used to tear up bits of paper on the bus home from school and then throw them out the windows and scream AR-GEN-TINA! AR-GEN-TINA!

Before we even got there, the spectacle had started, at home, with a triumphant send off. Ally McLeod’s men were presented to a big crowd at Hampden and then rode round the stadium in an open-topped bus. I was only 11 but I distinctly remember thinking: Is this normal? Isn’t this kind of celebration meant to take place after the tournament, not before it?

McLeod, of course, had convinced us we could win the competition. People laugh at that now but he wasn’t delusional, he was just badly prepared. We beat Holland, remember.

But we seemed to have no idea that Peru were a decent team and after going 1-0 up and then missing a penalty (thanks Don Masson) the house came crashing down. We lost 3-1 and looked shell shocked. A 1-1 draw to no-hopers Iran a few days later almost confirmed our departure.

There was still hope, however. If we could beat Holland by three goals we’d go through. And this being Scotland, after losing to the wee teams, we beat the big team, defeating the eventual finalists 3-2 in a game that included a goal that was to go down in Scottish folklore (see below).

It was brilliant stuff but it wasn’t enough. Once again it was glorious failure. Much more than that I can’t remember. Perhaps it’s for the best.

 

 

 

 

 

The World Cup is just a week away. I approach the tournament with mixed feelings, excited at the prospect of covering such an important event (not to mention the football) but broken-hearted at the shabby way Brazil has planned and prepared. So much more could have been done. So many promises have been broken.

But 99 % of the world doesn’t care if Brazil hasn’t built the metro lines it said it would, or if if the airports are still under construction, or if the new bus lanes turned out to be a fiction peddled by politicians.

They care about football. They want to see their team and their heroes. They want goals, noise, colour, fans doing crazy things. They want to hear commentators screaming “Gooooooooool!” like only South Americans can.

My first World Cup memory came in 1974. I was seven years old and Scotland had qualified for the first time since the 1950s. The opening game was against Zaire and I remember the match was played on a Friday night (the ‘facts’ in all these memories could be totally wrong, but they’re how I clearly remember them).

Throughout my childhood I was a regular at the Boy’s Brigade and only occasionally went to the Cubs (the BBs had a football team and the Cubs didn’t), but for some reason I was at the Cubs that Friday night. It was a beautiful sunny evening, and this being June in northern Europe it was still light at 7pm or 8 pm.

The Akela sent us home early so we could see the game. I’ll never forget her face when she packed us off from the school playground. Or our excitement.

I was too young to really know what the World Cup was all about. It was much smaller then (only 16 teams qualified) and there was none of the commercial madness that surrounds it now.

But I remember how excited I was running home to see Scotland play in the World Cup that glorious Friday night.

I can’t remember much about the game. I’m sure I watched it with my dad in our sitting room. We won 2-0. It was only Zaire, but we won 2-0. Brazil were up next and the possibilities were endless.

It was downhill from there.

 

Here’s a tiny little window into Brazil thanks to our friends at Itau.

Like Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg, Brazil’s largest private bank did a statistical analysis of who will win the World Cup. Unlike Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg, they refused to reveal the results of their statistical analysis, which is hilarious given that they sent it to every journalist in the country.

Why the reticence?

Is it a lack of transparency and accountability? Very possibly. The bank is notorious for treating clients poorly (as I blogged about here), going as far as making it impossible to call branches to talk to account managers or staff.

Lack of confidence in their results? Unlikely. Their partial predictions (why reveal half your results?) were hardly controversial. They boldly predicted the semi-finals will feature Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina.

A desire not to offend? Most likely. In bars and in foreign policy and in everything in between, Brazilians are averse to giving strong opinions with strangers lest they hurt someone’s feeling.

My prediction? Like Goldman and Bloomberg, I go for Brazil. But it’s a funny old game. Anything can happen. Roll on June 12.

 

Sometimes if you repeat a falsehood often enough you actually believe it’s true.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told us today the government has “done its part” and that the country will be ready to host the World Cup.

“I want to guarantee to everyone, first and foremost, that we have done our part,” she said. “We have stadiums ready, airports ready, we guarantee security during this period and I am sure that the Brazilian people are generous, happy and will welcome (visitors). Both off the field and on it we will show the power of our country.”

With 48 days to go three stadiums are still not ready and won’t be completely done by the time the games kick off on June 12. There won’t be enough time to properly test all the facilities.

Airports are even worse. The new terminal at Guarulhos might be “finished” but not enough to handle more than one-in-four of the international flights touching down at the airport, Brazil’s biggest. It will receive less than 10 % of all traffic.

The airport at Fortaleza won’t be ready so passengers will be greeted in a makeshift terminal area made out of tarpaulin.

And don’t get me started on public transport, the once much vaunted legacy that is now in tatters. Brazil shelved or cut back on so many projects that it is now spending more on luxurious stadiums for the few than proper roads, bus lanes, tram lines and metros for the many.

No sane person could consider Brazil “ready.”

Is there a silver lining in this? No.

But at least Dilma was right about one thing. Brazilians are generous, happy and welcoming. The Cup should at least be fun.

 

Adidas 2Adidas launched two tshirts this month that were ostensibly about the World Cup but had a sexual connotation. Their message was clear: Come to Brazil for the football and you might get lucky.

The tshirts were withdrawn from sale yesterday after the Brazilian government complained they were “a crime against all humanity” that encouraged sexual tourism.

The tshirts, pictured here, were in questionable taste and the company was right to remove them from shop windows.

But the Brazilian government’s response is not just over the top (a crime against all humanity?), it is also hypocritical.

Walk down any Brazilian street and you are assailed by sensual images, both real and virtual, that go far beyond what you see in Europe or the US. Infant girls get their ears pierced and are adorned with pink ribbons. Children are wheeled out on TV shows in hot pants and crop tops where they dance suggestively. Gorgeous and scantily clad women are a fixture in adverts and on television.Adidas 1

Beer companies, to quote perhaps the most egregious example, don’t just have semi-naked blondes (yes, they’re usually blondes) in every commercial, they give their beers names such as Devassa, Proibida, and Gostosa.

Most of this is down to the private sector and, lamentably, the media.

But federal, state and municipal government rarely object and certainly not with the vigor they showed yesterday.

Instead, they continue to do business with the guilty companies. They give their imprimatur to carnival, where semi-nude and second rate models shake themselves atop pedestals under the guise of culture. They advertise with the offending media conglomerates.

This isn’t a comment on sexual attitudes. It’s a comment on hypocrisy and perspective.

Brazil is always sensitive about its image and will be even more so in the run up to the World Cup. But there are many more important issues to be resolved right now than the sale of a few questionable tshirts.

The furor over the tshirts is not wrong. It’s just missing the bigger picture.

kitkatIn a country where almost everything is maddeningly expensive, one of the highlights of traveling is the stop at Duty Free on the way home.

In Brazil that means Dufry, the company with the contract to sell duty free items at Brazil’s airports.

I’ve long suspected that Dufry are ripping people off, much like Itau, whom I wrote about here last year.

My suspicions were aroused a couple of years ago. I forgot my headphones when heading to the US and bought a pair in duty free at Guarulhos airport. A day or so later I spotted the same pair in a store in Florida for almost half the price.

When I came back to Brazil I asked Dufry for an interview but their press officer said it wasn’t the right time to talk. A few weeks later his boss was in Folha boasting about how the firm was thinking of opening stores on Brazil’s land borders.

I came back to Brazil again this week and found one more example of how Dufry are ripping off unsuspecting customers.

A bag of 25 two-finger Kit Kats was on sale at the Dufry shop for 54 reais. That works out to be 1.08 reais per finger. It seemed expensive so when I got back to Sao Paulo I checked out the prices.

I picked up a four-finger Kit Kat at a pharmacy in Sao Paulo yesterday for 3.50 reais, or 0.875 reais per finger. Much cheaper than in Dufry’s duty free shop.

Remember the whole point of a duty free shop is that the items they sell are tax free and so should be cheaper than in regular stores.

It’s hard to look at Dufry and see a company that is willfully ripping off its customers.

collage_20131205154743648_20131211235334178-1Lots of people ask me whether I think the World Cup will be a success and I usually answer in two parts.

Yes, it will be great for a month and the people who come here will have a fantastic time.

But when they leave, Brazilians will be left with the bill, the shocking lack of a legacy infrastructure, and a tragic feeling, especially if the home side wins, that everything in their country is hunky dory.

The next question is often, Why do think it will be great when you have all these criticisms?

I found the perfect answer to that question last week at the World Cup draw. Every morning at breakfast dozens of colourful little birds flew around the hotel’s outdoor dining room. A colleague said he saw a family of meerkats nearby.

Brazil can be a hugely enchanting country and Brazilians have an undeniable charm. Sitting down to breakfast and seeing wildlife up close is an unforgettable experience for a visitor.

Fans come for the football and seeing the World Cup in the game’s spiritual home will be a dream come true for many.

Put that together with friendly natives, beaches, sunshine, music and one month-long party atmosphere, and that’s more than enough to send a visitor home enraptured with their South American stay.

I’ve no doubt those will be the memories most people will take away with them.

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