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Jun 15, 2014

Feeling Spain's pain in Salvador

A brace apiece from Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben helped humiliate the reigning World Cup champions in Salvador, Brazil.

ESPN FC columnist David Hirshey and Roger Director, an Emmy-nominated writer/producer, are blogging about their misadventures in Salvador, Brazil, during the first round of the World Cup. Pray for them.

"Mais uma."

In this land of happiness, those words turned out to be more life-saving than getting to the hotel, finding our rooms, our tickets, our Dengue Fever antidote, water filtration device, Yellow Fever vaccination documents and, not least, setting up iPhones and Internet access -- all of which we had been confoundingly unable to do.

But we had learned something about this laid-back, beach city on Brazil's northeast coast that somehow made all those problems insignificant. And those were the two words, which, in Portuguese, mean, "One more."

Say those words and a magic potion called a caipirinha will materialize -- as it did about a half dozen times in a steamy, loud bar on the beach in Salvador. Surrounded by soccer fans from Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and everywhere else on the planet, we sat at a corner table marveling how we all got here.

Our infallible plan to savor the passion, sleeplessness, delirium, dry heaving (hey, even Lionel Messi has been known to toss his chorizos) insanity that is a World Cup in Brazil was hatched when Sepp Blatter uttered the words, "The 2014 World Cup is awarded to Bra--" and was promptly forgotten for the next six and a half years. Our inability to adhere to the British military adage of the "Seven P's"-- proper planning and preparation prevents piss-poor performance -- had dogged us through 30 years of attending Super Bowls, World Series and title bouts. Perhaps the only major sporting event we've missed in our decades-long friendship is the National Hot Dog Eating Championship, although we train very hard for it.

Spain put on a historic display of failure for a defending champion when they lost 5-1 to the Dutch.
Spain put on a historic display of failure for a defending champion when they lost 5-1 to the Dutch.

We knew we had to recruit the right men for the job. Above all, we needed someone who knew the land and we had him: Wilson Edigio, a native of Belo Horizonte who had played professionally in Brazil before emigrating to the States 20 years ago to become one of the most celebrated youth coaches in the country.

He remains the same tireless, skillful field general that he was when starring for Santos' youth team back in the day. He brought his protégé, Gui Stampur, who was equally adept at juggling a ball and the admiring glances of any thong-clad Giselle Bundchens on the beach. Under Wilson's tutelage, Gui became a standout high school and college player. The two had returned to Salvador many times over the past decade to supply the impoverished children of the favelas with equipment and coaching clinics.

Now they were here on the mother of all missions, and like any special op, job No. 1 was getting in. And by "in" we mean the three World Cup games we had come to see. Enter Jeff Spiritos, otherwise known as "The Ticket Master." A former goalkeeper for Duke and an engineering wizard, he had somehow unlocked the most impenetrable computer security system FIFA could devise and acquired for us front-row seats only a wooden shoe's throw away from the families of the Dutch players. Or maybe it was just an accidental piece of butt-dialing luck. Who cares?

The five of us were in a jet-lagged but buoyant mood after both the Selecao had their way with Croatia and the caipirinhas with us. At the end, we found ourselves high-fiving, fist-pumping and hugging each other, as well as anyone we could find in a G-string made of invisible dental floss.

With our beachhead secured, we retired to our Internet-free, towel-less, mosquito-friendly luxury hotel for a night of well-deserved, restorative sleep. Within 20 minutes, we came under attack. Booming explosions rattled our un-air-conditioned room, and the fearsome rat-a-tat of what sounded like a bullet fusillade slammed against the balcony railing. We dove for the ground in panic and took cover until Wilson called and urged us to go out on the balcony and watch the fireworks in celebration of Brazil's victory.

David Hirshey (left) with Papa Noel, the local beach soccer star.
David Hirshey (left) with Papa Noel, the local beach soccer star.

We had forgotten that after a Brazil win, nobody sleeps. They go out dancing, they honk horns, they sing in the streets -- it is "mais uma" until the sun comes up.

Bleary-eyed, we looked out from the balcony in the morning and by 8 a.m. the shore was already packed with men and women playing futevolei, the national beach craze that involves players using every body part but their hands to get the ball over a volleyball net. It's fast and sweaty action with a premium on skill and control and complete disregard for one's bones, tendons and muscles. Needless to say, we didn't go near it.

We did, however, make the mistake of joining a keepy-up game on the edge of the water. There were five Brazilians -- two women and three men, including one in a Santa cap -- juggling the ball with their feet, head, shoulders and knees, the kind of drill that The Mustachioed One of us had done thousands of times as a high school and college player.

But this was a different version than the one he played in New York parks because Brazilians take it as a personal insult when the ball touches the sand. Which is why one of your humble correspondents lasted only three touches before his attempted bicycle kick sailed into the ocean and he skulked away in shame. Santa Claus came over offering a cerveza and some consolation. Wilson introduced him to us as Papa Noel, adding that he was a local beach legend who hasn't let the ball drop in 22 years.

"Futevolei" (beach soccer meets volleyball) is something of a national pastime in Brazil. Not a game for rookies.

We grabbed a picture with Papa just before a sudden deluge, typical for here, sent everyone scurrying for cover until it blew over in 20 minutes. By then it was time for us to put on our game faces for the Spain-Netherlands showdown in three hours, which is about how long it takes to drive your car around the block in downtown Salvador.

The Brazilians haven't finished building much of anything yet -- who knows if they ever will? -- and so the only practical way of getting to the game was to park a mile away from Arena Fonte Nova and hike there along with the rest of the lunatic throngs under a blistering sun.

When we finally reached our seats with only one functioning hamstring between us, imagine our chagrin to find there were no programs, no food at the concession stands and an hour wait for -- what else? -- a Bud. But on the bright side, there were seats that made you forget any hunger or thirst: front row, near midfield and directly across from the section housing the wives and families of the Dutch team.

The Mustachioed One (TMO), proudly rocking a red Spain jersey, sat smugly in the sea of orange, reminding everyone who the defending champions were. And indeed, Spain scored inside of half an hour on a penalty after Diego Costa was taken down in the box to a deafening crescendo of boos from our section, who believed that he had orchestrated the foul. But Wilson and his fellow countrymen in the stadium had reserved their own derisive chant for Costa, who holds dual citizenship and chose to play for Spain rather than Brazil. We asked Wilson what he was so fiercely yelling, and he said, "Loosely speaking, Diego Costa will never get a free caipirinha in Brazil for the rest of his life."

Yet this is nothing compared to the well-deserved ridicule awaiting Iker Casillas and the clown car Spain calls their defense. We can only imagine the pain Shakira must have felt watching her husband Gerard Pique being depantsed by the cold-blooded Dutch assassins, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben.

After each of their four goals, they sprinted to the sidelines with a vengeful joy that had been pent up for four years following their defeat against Spain in the finals of the last Cup. As the roar of "Hup, Holland, Hup" enveloped the stadium, they slid on their knees to a stop in front of their families and loved ones -- and us. Everyone went crazy except, of course, TMO, who, for a moment, in disgust, started to rip off his jersey and fling it to the ground. But he thought better of it. For obvious reasons.

Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben were present for the pain of the 2010 final, making Friday's victory all the sweeter.
Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben were present for the pain of the 2010 final, making Friday's victory all the sweeter.

The Dutch fans refused to leave the stadium basking in the afterglow. They might have stayed all night, but the concession stands were closed and refused to reopen despite the red-faced ravings of the mob. They finally accepted that to continue drinking, there was no alternative but to exit the grounds.

The orange explosion, replete with their exquisite female supporters draped in flags that they seemed only too ready to unfurl, rolled through the streets, kissing and hugging and groping everyone -- except us. Blame has to fall on TMO and his infernal red shirt.

The best place to watch the Chile-Australia game that followed turned out to be one that served caipirinhas. Pizza also. And caipirinha pizzas. Perhaps only one other table in the joint ordered as many caipirinhas as we did. That table belonged to seven men who slouched in out of yet another downpour, their red jerseys soaked and their spirits in need of drowning.

At the sight of them Wilson scowled the only scowl we'd seen. "I've always thought the Spanish were overrated," he said, "and it killed me that they won the World Cup last time. Brazilians feel it's as if they took what was ours. And now I'm afraid they'll go out in the first round and we won't get a chance to show them who the real kings of soccer are."

An impish smile returned to his face and he called over the waiter. "Could you do me a favor," he said in Portuguese, "and send over a special dessert to my friends over there. It's called 'tiki-taka.'"

Wilson turned and winked at us. "They'll know what to do with it, don't you think? And by the way, 'mais uma.'"