RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil woke up the day of the World Cup match between Argentina and Nigeria to reports that 100,000 or more fans of their South American rivals were invading Porto Alegre, where the game was being held, and that only 18,000 of them had tickets.
But fears of hooliganism did not dampen the fraternal mood that the “Latin American Cup” — as it is already being called — has created. There has been a Latin American invasion of Brazil by Argentines, Mexicans, Costa Ricans, Ecuadorans, Colombians, Chileans and Hondurans. It is a new experience for all concerned. And both Brazilians and visitors are enjoying the mix.
Many of the invaders, particularly the Chileans and Argentines, came by road –- in motor homes, cars and jeeps towing trailers. When they started parking on Rio de Janeiro streets, the mayor’s office moved many of them on to an impromptu trailer park near the city’s Sambódromo – the parade ground where annual Carnival festivities are held.
The facilities are basic: some snack bars and toilets, but no hot water nor electricity, and concrete on which many have pitched tents. But on match day, as Argentines stretched and put on their blue and white team shirts in the sunshine and Chileans sat down for breakfast, the mood was balmy.
Sergio Laforgia, 48, sat shirtless, sunning himself in a camp chair. “I like Brazil,” he smiled, citing beaches, weather and the opposite sex. “The feeling is to win the World Cup.”
He and five male friends from Balcarce, in Buenos Aires province, gutted and converted a bus into a motor home, and drove more than 2,500 miles to Rio. “The Brazilians treat us really well,” said his fellow traveler Daniel Tabone, 51. “There is a rivalry, but we respect them.”
Next to them five Chileans ate breakfast around a camp table. They had driven from the southern Chilean city Los Angeles to Cuiabá, then on to Rio as part of a ‘Chilean Caravan’ of some 3,000 fans. “The Brazilians really like Chileans,” said Gabriel Urrutia, 23, joking. “We are the kings of the Americas.”
A group of 11 Brazilians who journeyed in an enormous trailer from Brusque in the country’s south added to the mix. “Everyone understands each other, and speaks the same language – football,” Jairo Schlindwein said. His World Cup experiences inspired him to seek out more cultural interaction, he said. “I’m looking to travel more.”
Jorge Reniero, from Mendoza, Argentina, held up a giant flag.
“Here, I feel like I’m 25,” said Reniero, who is 56. “People told us, ‘Don’t go to Brazil, it is a lot of trouble. Too many thieves.’ The experience is very different.” Five friends traveled with him in a motor home.
Like many, Reniero and his friends had been at the stadium in Belo Horizonte on Saturday when Lionel Messi scored a last-minute goal that gave Argentina a 1-0 victory over Iran. “It was an indescribable emotion, incomparable,” said Hector Gonzalez, 44.
As stories began to break on Brazilian media about assaults on ticket holders heading to the Beira-Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, Argentines from the camp joined thousands of their countrymen and crammed into an official FIFA Fan Fest on Copacabana beach to watch the Nigeria game.
Many wore Argentina shirts bearing Lionel Messi’s name. But Charly Mendez, 40, from Wilde, was dressed as another, equally famous Argentine: Pope Francis. “Messi is the Messiah,” he said, as locals queued up to have their photograph taken with him. But God, he said, was Argentine.
Nursing a caipirinha cocktail in a plastic cup, Fela Elliott, 41, who lives in Houston, was one of the few Nigerian fans. “I love it,” he said. “The people of Rio are great people. The atmosphere is amazing.”
When the match began, a Messi goal in the first few minutes sent the huge mass of sky-blue-and-white-clad Argentine fans into rapture. But Nigeria equalized quickly. It was a close, fast, and unpredictable game, but Messi’s persistence and his poetic ability turned it. Fouled for one free kick, his arcing shot into the top right hand corner was dramatically palmed away by Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria’s goalkeeper .
Unfazed, Messi lined up for another free kick minutes later, in practically the same spot. This time his ball floated home to make it 2-1 and Los Hermanos – “the brothers” in Spanish, as the Argentine fans are known – performed a collective routine in which they all bowed their arms up and down in unison, like pilgrims in prayer.
At halftime, an entertainer in an Argentina shirt and rubber Messi mask came on and incited the mob to sing Argentine rock songs. Messi was rewarded with an ovation when he was substituted second-half, and Argentina completed a 3-2 victory. As the throng filed out, a kid in a Brazil shirt yelled: “I want Argentina at the Maracanã!” Nobody quibbled.
“There are good caliber players in the team but Messi is from Jupiter,” Nigeria Coach Stephen Keshi after the match. Pope Francis and his Argentine brethren would no doubt agree.
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