Meeting Forlan and a ban on bananas
SAO PAULO -- The best thing about being in Brazil is meeting normal Brazilians. They're friendly, curious and laugh at your attempts to speak Portuguese. Or -- as was the case in my taxi to an airport in Sao Paulo from where I write this -- sing a Corinthians football club song.
Brazil is a young democracy with, outside of World Cups, relatively few international tourists, and its people are forever asking what you think about their country.
Cities have been full of foreign visitors, especially from South America. Tens of thousands of Argentinians, Chileans, Uruguayans and Colombians are here and having a great time.
The numbers are far lower from Europe, but 5,000 Algerians came from North Africa and they've not stopped partying. The fans are mixing freely and the World Cup is a success on that level. I'm waiting for a flight to Belo Horizonte, which is full of football fans, and is where Argentina are playing Iran on Saturday.
Back in March, I spoke to Carlos Queiroz in Tehran about this match.
"We have the opportunity to play the best teams," he said. "Imagine how much it would cost us to play Argentina with [Lionel] Messi in a friendly? Now we'll play them for free!"
Despite that brevity, Queiroz is a serious man who was very serious about Iran's intentions.
"We are going to do everything to reach the second round," he said. "People can say this is not realistic, but we need a target. We're not going to Brazil for tourism."
But he also intended to enjoy the moment of being in the finals.
"I see us like a train of camels," he said. "We've crossed the desert. Now we've reached the oasis, and we're going to enjoy it."
Since the tournament began, I've been attending games most days and, if not, a news conference or a day of travel. Sunday was a rare day with neither, and I was invited to a Brazilian family dinner in the hills near Belo Horizonte. Despite being a complete stranger, I was welcomed with incredible hospitality.
They asked me what I thought of Brazil and BH, I asked them what they thought of England and Manchester. The variety of answers from three generations was interesting.
"Morrissey," said one.
"The Queen of England supporting her people in the Second World War by helping them pick potatoes," said the grandmother of the family, an especially kind lady who lamented that 31 teams had to leave Brazil having not won the World Cup. She hated the idea that they would equate the sadness of losing with her country. She wanted every visitor to go home happy.
"One Direction," continued a young girl. "The industrial revolution," a scholarly father added. The Beatles, Wimbledon and Diana, Princess of Wales, were other answers. Not one person said Manchester United or Manchester City, which makes a change.
Not everyone has been so friendly. On Monday, I visited the Uruguay team hotel, a journey of two hours from Belo Horizonte. I travelled with two British journalists for their news conference, which started 75 minutes late.
Despite the international appeal of the upcoming game between Uruguay and England, no questions were permitted in English. With the conference over, security were called to escort the British journalists off the premises while the Urguayan journalists had an exclusive chat with Luis Suarez.
I told one security man that I was a friend of Diego Forlan and that he'd invited me. He didn't believe me. I said the same to the man in charge of the Uruguayan media the same. He, too, didn't believe me.
In desperation, I got my phone out and said: "Look, this is a picture of me and Forlan and his wife. In their house. Do you think they'd invite a stranger to their home?"
With that, the media guy went to get Forlan.
"There's an English guy who says he knows you," he said.
"Andy?" he said. "He does. Bring him in."
With that, I was escorted into the inner sanctum of the team hotel, where Forlan introduced me to Suarez and we had a chat. They were confident ahead of their game against England -- rightly so as it transpired. Suarez was the difference between the teams.
When you stay with Brazilians, you get a different perspective. They can't, for example, understand why European referees don't use sprays to mark out free-kicks as they usually do in South America.
The ones I've met love football, but they don't love the cost of staging the World Cup and think the money would have been better spent on public services. That said, the predicted social unrest has been minimal, with marches attended by an angry few. Most Brazilians want the world to see their country in a positive light and the mood remains positive ... at least while Brazil are still in the tournament.
There are countless stories of interaction. A friend is translating for Fabio Capello as she can speak Italian. He has the image of being a disciplinarian, yet she said he's absolutely charming and he regularly thanks her for all her help in press conferences. All she wants is for him and his Russia team to have a positive image of her city, Sao Paulo, and her country.
The mood is good inside the stadiums too. Alcohol is normally banned in Brazilian stadiums but can be sold at the World Cup. There have been reports of locals overdoing it on the beer, just because they're allowed to.
It's odd, though, that someone could drink 10 pints of beer inside a stadium and yet food is confiscated. I had a banana confiscated while trying to get into the FIFA fan fest in Sao Paulo. It's silly. The authorities want fans to buy food from their sponsors, but if that's the case, they should get a decent banana partner.
I don't like FIFA banning supporters' flags inside the stadiums, either. Flags are part of football culture, yet none are allowed on display. It's pathetic: They're not offensive, nor do they obstruct FIFA's many sponsors. The ban, which was introduced to prevent hijack marketing, needs to be reconsidered -- unless, for example, the words EVERTON FC are considered as marketing for -- Everton FC.
I've got a city a day for the next week. It will be tiring, but hopefully as enjoyable as the week so far in which I'm managing to see the country beyond the stadiums.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.