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Jun 7, 2014

On the road to Brazil

In the summer of 1994, a group of mates and I travelled around Europe by train, an adventure that took place on a budget that made our diet consist of ham and cheese sandwiches and accommodation that was considered luxury if it boasted hot water. We had been to the continent to watch Manchester United play, but this trip would be nothing to do with football.

The ferry crossed the English Channel from Portsmouth to Cherbourg in France, and we were delighted to see Union Jacks and Star-Spangled Banners prevalent in the port.

It was weeks after the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and the celebrations in Normandy had been significant. This Friday marked the 70th anniversary.

As a young English man, I felt very proud of the achievements of my forefathers. On D-Day, my grandfather had been on a 112-foot minesweeper that helped clear the outer harbour at Cherbourg. Their sister vessel, an American boat, hit a mine in the River Scheldt near Antwerp and was destroyed, with the loss of all 18 sailors on board. Grandad never spoke about the war, but in 2010 I was determined to get his memories written down.

"For the first time in the war I was scared," he admitted of that day. He envied the American soldiers for their superior kit and food rations; he respected the German foes as soldiers. He saw a lot in the first 20 years of his life before he returned to Manchester and made his living as a footballer.

Twenty years ago, we took photos of the Union Jack on our boat as it entered Cherbourg, and one friend decided he'd climb along the flag pole, despite it being 50 foot above open water, and "liberate" the hand-stitched ensign for a tour across Europe. He sends his apologies, Brittany Ferries.

In Cherbourg, photos from renowned war photographer Robert Capa were on display. They were vivid, shocking and brilliant. With good reason, Britons are not popular in every area of the globe, but in Normandy they were revered as liberators by their allies.

We headed south and stayed on a campsite. The World Cup finals were starting in America. We might have considered going, but England didn't qualify, not that us or any United fans we knew had strong feelings toward the national team. I wanted England to win, but didn't have the time nor money to watch my club and country home and away.

After what seemed like a one-way deal in which United would send their players to play for England only for them to come back injured -- Bryan Robson, Steve Coppell and Neil Webb had all been crocked playing for their country -- indifference toward England turned to mild antagonism when United players such as David Beckham and the Neville brothers were booed by their fans.

At the start of the 1990s, Union Jacks aplenty adorned United sections at away grounds. I know because I owned three, all lovingly painted and placed at the front of ends from Leeds, West Yorkshire, to Honved, Budapest.

As young men, we'd go on holiday and fly a flag from our cheap apartments like a conquering army. Baffled Greeks and Spaniards probably -- and rightly -- considered us idiots. Most women would avoid us like the plague. An older journalist told me the regional pride we had in our city was new to him, but we were proud to be from Manchester, England.

By the end of the decade, the flags had almost entirely disappeared at United matches and been replaced by red, white and black tricolours. To us, the Union Jacks had come to symbolise something different, an overt nationalism we didn't want to be part of.

Few in our social circle went to England games; it wasn't considered the done thing. You were more likely to hear the tune of the French national anthem at Old Trafford than any jingoistic British songs, more likely too to hear "Argentina" out of respect to Juan Veron, Gabriel Heinze and Carlos Tevez.

To this day, despite having travelled the world watching football, I've never seen England play live.

I've watched England play on television and can remember jumping for joy seeing Robson score in Espana '82, sulking when he went off in Mexico '86 and cheering England as they reached the semifinals at Italia '90, but that young enthusiasm shriveled.

As a journalist, I was often too shattered by the end of the club season to bother with international tournaments. I went to Copa America in Venezuela as a fan in 2007, saw other international matches at Euro '96 and have seen friendlies, but club football was my focus for work and pleasure and I was content with that.

World Cups would be watched with interest through a television screen, but without the passion that accompanied the club game. I respected the huge numbers of England fans who'd travel to tournaments -- often far, far more than other equivalent-sized nations -- especially as they were usually watching a poor product.

The Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte will host four group games, as well as a round of 16 match and a semifinal.

Yet, I write this as I pack my bags for Brazil, where I'll watch six group games featuring 10 teams -- including two England games. I'll see my country in Belo Horizonte vs. Costa Rica and in Sao Paulo vs. Uruguay. I'll also fly to Brasilia to see Brazil vs. Cameroon.

But why? The tiring domestic season feels as if it has barely finished, and we have a new arrival in the family I'm reluctant to leave. But this time is different; as a regular visitor to Brazil -- my wife is from there -- some of the outlets I write for assumed that I'd be going and offered work. It's one country where I have decent contacts, too, which help with places to stay and people to meet.

Some of the British newspapers are paying over 20,000 pounds to send their journalists for the group stage only. Brazil will be expensive, but I can do it far cheaper, and, by hitting the road alone, you often get a different view.

Secondly, I know a few players directly involved in the competition well. They've offered me access to what they do, which I figure will be better than trying to speak to them in the scrum of a mixed zone after matches. That's where you push toward a player who doesn't really want to be facing a bank of microphones or cameras and will do his best to say nothing. It's the opposite of a proper sit-down interview.

So I'll fly via Miami to Belo Horizonte, Brazil's third-largest urban area, and set about chronicling what I see, much of it for ESPN FC. And I'll finally watch England for the first time in 40 years on this planet, although I've no idea what I did with those flags.