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 Posted by Andy Mitten
Jun 15, 2014

The beautiful game in Brazil

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- The departures board showed the flight to Miami was delayed by five hours. That would've made the seven-hour connecting time for Belo Horizonte tight, but just about doable. It mattered little, for the flight was soon canceled altogether. There will be some excuse that gets the airline out of paying compensation to affected passengers, but the delay meant I wouldn't be in Brazil for the start of the World Cup.

My journey finally got off the ground 24 hours later, on Thursday. Eleven hours to Miami, eight hours in Miami, an airport that bills itself as a gateway to Brazil. The local heroes, the Miami Heat, were being defeated in a big NBA game screened throughout the airport. It attracted almost as much attention as the opening match from Sao Paulo between Brazil and Croatia.

American soccer fans aplenty abounded, and a couple of England fans from Northampton were spotted en route to Manaus, but by far the biggest group of football fans were the Colombians. Only Brazil and the U.S. have sold more tickets than Colombia -- and a lot of the tickets sold in the U.S. were to Colombians and other expats.

The overnight flight to Brazil's third-biggest city was packed with Colombians. Many were good natured and friendly, as you would be if you came from a country named after the best Oasis song. They talked of huge numbers of compatriots heading south. They weren't wrong.

Colombians were the dominant fan group in Belo -- a term locals don't use, they say "be-ah-ga" -- and gathered around the bars to watch Spain capitulate against Holland. There were minor protests in the city on Thursday, but I suspect the Brazilian government conspired neatly with American Airlines so that I missed them, although a homeless man slept under "No to the Copa" graffiti near the bus station.

A homeless man sleeps beneath graffiti protesting the World Cup.
A homeless man sleeps beneath graffiti protesting the World Cup.

Taking a taxi for the final part of the journey to where I'm staying, the driver was excited to have an Englishman in his cab. He'd read for years about an influx of foreign visitors and now he had one on the back seat.

"Where you from?" he asked in halting English.

"Manchester, England."

"Unite or Cit?"

"United."

"David Besham."

Said taxi driver also had a tablet wired up by his reverse mirror so that he could watch matches as he worked.

It's winter here, cool and dry but just about warm enough to wear a T-shirt. Brazil flags are proudly on display in most shops and hang from cars. The usually heavy traffic has been helped by the school holidays being adjusted to take vehicles off roads.

- Mitten: Colombia see off hapless Greece

I'm staying with a Brazilian family who've bought tickets for all four group games in their city. The dad supports Rio side Fluminense and, as well as explaining that his father watched Brazil in three World Cup finals in person (1950, 1962 and 1970), he said that the German, Dutch and English teams had most impressed Brazilians so far by integrating with the communities close to their hotels.

His son, 12, supports Atletico Mineiro, one of the two major teams here, the other being Cruzeiro. It's a good time for football in BH (not to be confused with Bosnia and Herzegovina), as I'm now going to call it. Atletico won the Copa Libertadores in 2013, and their squad includes Ronaldinho.

Would you believe me if I told you that one of his former teammates, Roberto Carlos, had just walked past? Well, he did. He looks well for someone who played until he was 39 and is two years into retirement. Had he looked after himself better, Ronaldinho could have been playing in this World Cup and added to his 97 Brazil caps.

Atletico's rivals Cruzeiro are the current Brazilian champions. The pair often use the Estadio Mineirao, where I watched Colombia thrash Greece from the press box. Belo Horizonte was the scene of England's shocking defeat against the USA in the 1950 World Cup, when a dishwasher called Joe Gaetjens scored the only goal.

The 62,000-seat Mineirao was redeveloped for this World Cup and was ready more than a year ago. It staged the 2013 Libertadores final and a semifinal of the Confederations Cup between Brazil and Uruguay last June.

Colombia's fans fill the streets of Belo Horizonte.
Colombia's fans fill the streets of Belo Horizonte.

Uruguay is the main reason I'm in BH as their national team are staying in Sete Lagoas, 70 kilometres to the north. I'll see Diego Forlan there. I spoke to him on Tuesday and he wasn't quite himself, seeming a little distracted. I've known him for years and he's always been great to deal with. Was this because I'm English and he didn't want to be too candid with an English journalist ahead of Uruguay's huge game against England on Thursday? Or because he was entirely focused on the games ahead?

I played the recording back the next day and heard a noise that sounded like a toilet flush. It all became apparent when I landed in Miami and saw a news story that said Forlan had missed training with a stomach bug the day after we'd spoken.

The son of the family I'm staying with wanted to watch Argentina train nearby. His mother queued unsuccessfully for three hours to get a ticket. So did 30,000 others and only 4,000 were successful.

I won't promise anything, but I'll try to get him to see some of the Uruguay players. I've taken fans to meet Forlan once before, in 2007 during the Copa America in Venezuela, when I shepherded a group of eight Manchester United supporters into their team hotel. A repeat of that now probably would not be the best idea as Luis Suarez would also likely be present.

But back to Colombia and Greece, as their fans stream back onto the streets of BH. The Greek diaspora is vast, but it doesn't stretch too deeply into South America. Their fans are heavily outnumbered and were jokingly booed by the Colombians when they ventured into their stronghold of bars around the Savassi neighbourhood.

It was good to see so many people smiling after a nightmare journey here. Fortunately, that's now behind me (and Spain may say the same of Friday the 13th), so while I've got a lot of work to do, it's time to enjoy the tournament.

Andy Mitten

Manchester-born Andy Mitten founded United We Stand in 1989, at age 15. He has written 11 books since his career began in 1995 and visited almost 100 countries while working for numerous magazines and newspapers worldwide. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.