SALVADOR, Brazil -- Three full hours before the highly anticipated Brazil-Italy match, I jump in a cab to avoid traffic surprises and head for the stadium. Half-expecting his answer, I ask my driver whether he's already been to the stunningly beautiful Fonte Nova. He predictably snaps: "Me? There? At the stadium? Have you seen the prices?" "Well, it looks fantastic," I offer, trying to make him feel better. "Yes, that's the FIFA standard," he says, huge sarcasm in his voice. "We'll have to wait for the Brasileirão to see it from the inside ..."
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I've been conducting this little survey of mine in three different cities (Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Fortaleza) among cab drivers, waiters and other middle- to low-income workers. The results, overwhelmingly consistent, show that even though most of them follow football and frequently go to their respective stadia, they don't think this Confederations Cup is for them to watch live.
"Do you know how much I pay to watch Santa Cruz?" a young waiter in Recife told me. "R$15 [around $7 U.S.]. The cheapest ticket costs almost R$60 [$28, or 10 percent of the minimum monthly salary in Brazil], and they're impossible to find."
With small variations, that is pretty much the difference in price between national championship matches and this FIFA tournament: four times ... again, if you can find the cheap ones. The die-hard fans have been priced out, although a cost comparison between the pleasures of watching the mighty Santa Cruz and a Brazil-Italy match is always bound to sound a bit demagogical.
That said, I hoped a decent number of blue-collar fans would show up at the Fonte Nova. When the final schedule for this Confederations Cup was published, Brazil-Italy stood out, not only because of the nine combined World Cup titles the teams have won, but also due to the match location. The city of Salvador prides itself on having one of the most vocal supporter bases in the country, able to draw 40,000-plus crowds even when Bahia or Vitoria, the city's biggest clubs, compete in the Second or Third Division. I expected the Soteropolitanos to save some cash for what would potentially be Brazil's only match in Salvador during the tournament and put on a show.
The locals, almost 80 percent of them of with African roots, have a huge love for open-air shows; they know how to light up a stadium.
However, Salvador indeed has had some unfortunate moments in its past when it comes to supporting the national team. In the 1989 Copa América, Brazil chose the capital of the Bahia state as the city to host their four group-stage matches, but ended up having to play the final one in Recife to finally enjoy some home-field advantage.
Bahia supporters -- at that point Brazilian champions -- could not stomach that the Brazilian coach, Sebastião Lazaroni, wasn't too keen on striker Charles, the star in Bahia's title-winning season. Knowing that Lazaroni would bench their idol in the first match against Venezuela, a 3-1 win, only 13,000 showed up -- the Fonte Nova had welcomed a mind-boggling 110,000 supporters five months earlier to support Bahia against Fluminense in their title challenge.
In the second game, with a still-disappointing 38,000 fans, the national anthem was booed and eggs were thrown toward Brazil's bench, famously hitting forward Renato Gaúcho; Brazil drew 0-0 against Peru. After a similar attendance and behaviour in their third match against Colombia -- another 0-0 draw -- Brazil unprecedentedly decided to change the venue of their final group match, against Paraguay, and traveled to Recife, where a brace from Bebeto qualified them for the knockout stage in front of 76,000 people.
After that fiasco, Salvador had to wait for six years until Brazil played again at the Fonte Nova, a friendly match against Uruguay. The Verde Amarela came back only two more times to play other friendlies, but the stadium was getting more and more obsolete, and the lure of the more iconic Maracanã and Morumbi kept Brazil away from the state of Bahia for more than 14 years ... until Saturday afternoon.
Having the perfect chance to erase the reminiscences of such an embarrassing past in a brand new stadium, the Fonte Nova fan watch brought mixed feelings to the neutrals. The overwhelmingly white, upper-class supporters present, never the loudest crowd in Brazil, stepped it up during the anthem and looked and sounded utterly delirious after Neymar scored off a free kick.
On a couple of occasions during the match, every fan screamed the verse that has already become the song of the tournament -- "Sou brasileiro com muito orgulho, com muito amor", or "I am Brazilian with plenty of pride, with plenty of love" -- to the top of their lungs, but the stadium displayed a bunch of empty seats in every level, disappointing for such an anticipated event. And the appearance of the dreaded Mexican wave as early as the 25th minute refreshed memories of certain games in the 2010 World Cup, during which the happenings on the pitch didn't seem too relevant for the public. In any case, the decent atmosphere Saturday was a far cry from that of the raving lunatic crowds that pack the house in every Bahia: Vitória.
With its pros and cons, the FIFA standard is here to stay. Let's just hope they figure out a more inclusive way for all Brazilian fans to join the 2014 tournament. The show can only benefit from their involvement.