NATAL, Brazil – The rain has been incessant in Natal for the past 48 hours. It has come in waves, sheets, torrents, and buckets, forcing the beachside community indoors to take in the first three days of the World Cup.
Roberto Freire Avenue is the main highway running parallel to Natal’s coastline. In many ways, it’s like any boardwalk you might encounter on a summer vacation. There are hotels, gift shops, and eateries intermixed with beach homes. Of course, there are differences too. Like the country’s favorite sport is hosting its biggest event in the middle of this sleepy beach town.
And it’s raining the kind of rain you build an ark for.
I went out in this rain on Friday to cover Mexico and Cameroon. Under the shelter of Arena Das Dunas, I took in the spectacle. The match was fantastic, the environment electric.
On Saturday, I went out in the rain again. This time, to watch England and Italy in a bar filled with strangers. The place was packed. Wall to wall, every seat filled. People from across the world wedged together like sardines, spilling beer on each other in between bites of churrasco.
I didn’t have a prayer of getting a seat. That’s when I saw Jay.
Jay Liwanag lives 15 miles from me in northern Virginia. About 4,000 miles from home, there was Jay standing in the middle of a Brazilian bar waving at me – and more importantly, with a free seat.
Jay is a youth soccer coach, and is traveling Brazil as part of a trip with the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. Sitting at the table with Jay and his colleagues, I was entertained by their stories and observations from a week in Natal.
The group watched Brazil’s opening match of the tournament in a mall, which had shut down entirely to take in the game.
“It was incredible,” Jay said. “It was amazing to see how many people there were who were passionate about Brazilian football. The stores all shut down for the match, it was like Fourth of July in America.”
“Something that surprised me was the number of women watching the game together,” Kyle Gracias, another member of Jay’s NSCAA group, added. “You don’t see so many people interested in a match like that in America. Old people, kids, men and women, everyone was watching and knew players and knew the game.”
Brazilians also play the game. Jay and his coaching friends stumbled upon a pick up soccer game on the beach Wednesday, before the rain came.
“The goals were made out of rocks,” Jay said. “We were playing barefoot on the beach, And the players we played against …”
Gracias lifts his head to interject.
“Those kids we played against were really good,” Gracias said. “But it wasn’t just kids, there were older people, too. Everyone plays together, and they play hard.”
The group will leave Natal after the United States plays Ghana, and will travel to Rio de Janeiro to take in the Spain vs. Chile match before leaving for the U.S. By the end of the trip, Gracias hopes to get a picture with a fan from every country.
“I’ve been doing pretty well [in Natal],” Gracias said. “So far, I have about half of [the countries].”
Jay’s goal for the trip appears to have been already met. When he says it, it’s simple. Like the game we’re all taking in. But in that bar, it resonates.
“Playing on the beach was great. We would play when the ball went into the water, or in the dunes, it didn’t matter,” Jay said. “It really was the beautiful game, it reminded me why I love it. Every player should have that experience of playing on a beach in Brazil.”
Maybe more can soon. If the rain ever stops.