My flight from Natal to Fortaleza was awash in gold. Brazilian jerseys took up entire rows of the airplane. Despite their solidarity in numbers, I also sensed tension in those heading to watch Brazil take on Mexico. They spoke in hushed tones and gripped armrests. It was not from fear of flying. If Brazil beat Mexico, it would guarantee a ride into the knockout stages of the World Cup, but Mexico, which could also qualify for the next round with a win, would be no easy opponent. There was much at stake, aside from the normal hand-wringing about the performance of the national team. Arriving at the Fortaleza airport, the Brazil supporters mixed with exuberant Mexican fans who were flocking to see their team take on the host nation. Both sides broke out into chants in baggage claim. Everything was set for a showdown.
After checking my luggage into storage, I hopped a bus directly to Estadio Castelao, an imposing structure where Brazil defeated Mexico a year ago during the Confederations Cup. Despite the precedent for a Brazilian victory, Mexican fans held a completely different set of expectations. Tens of thousands had descended on Forteleza to support El Tricolor. Rumors abounded that some mortgaged their homes and sold their cars in order to afford the trip. Mexican flags waved, sombreros were handed out, and wrestling masks were donned. The Brazilian fans were also clad from head to toe in their national colors, but with nowhere near the elaborate flair of the Mexican fans in Aztec regalia happily chugging beers.
Emerging from the pre-game frenzy, I hit the streets surrounding the turreted Estadio Castelao. Living far from the highrises overlooking the ocean in downtown Fortaleza, the residents here instead reveled in prime views of the stadium towering over their humble neighborhood. Another temple to the futebol gods. The Brazilian team was in the spotlight on their doorsteps, and even if they couldn't afford a ticket, they could still set up televisions in the street and watch the game with the stadium as a backdrop. Later I found out there were small protests occurring nearby, staged by locals expressing frustration over the lack of compensation provided to those forcefully evicted from homes to build World Cup infrastructure. Their voices were drowned out by the cheering fans, though. It seems few in Brazil will pay more heed to protests until the World Cup is over, or the Brazilian team makes an unexpected early exit.
After sharing barbecue and a few cold beers with Brazilians I met near the stadium, I headed to Fortaleza's famous urban beachfront. A massive FIFA Fan Fest was set up along the shore. Like the one in Natal, it was fenced in for corporate sponsors and overpriced merchandise, but it did provide a place for locals to gather en masse and get a sense of what it would feel like in a stadium surrounded by thousands of other diehard fans. The tension I felt earlier on the airplane was even more palpable in the Fan Fest during the first half. Brazil just could not score against Mexico, despite many excellent chances. People were starting to pull at their hair and howl desperately in the air.
During halftime I discovered that local vendors had set up a large screen on an adjacent street: A DIY mini fan fest of their own. They had put together a venue where viewers could enjoy the match while consuming local snacks and beverages. The resolution of the screen might not have been as sharp as the one across the way, but the setup directly benefited the Fortaleza economy, rather than the FIFA coffers. Here I watched the crowd slowly descend into madness during the second half as Brazil missed opportunity after opportunity to take the lead, and Mexico launched its own forays on the net. Despite the drama, the match ended in a tie. It was a disappointment, but not a disaster—Brazil was still comfortably on its way to the knockout stages. The agonized looks of the crowd quickly melted into revelry as people headed out to dance the night away along the beach. So it goes in Brazil.