Ever since I watched Cameroon beat Argentina in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup I have dreamt of going to see a World Cup match. I spent hours on numerous days over the past year trying to get tickets online. I initially tried for tickets to follow Chile (it is where I live and where my wife is from) in the various random draws but in the end that proved unsuccessful and we had to settle for the scrap for tickets in the first come, first served periods. I got lucky and although I couldn’t get my number one choice which was Chile v Spain in the Maracana, I was confident Chile could win the group so opted for 1B v 2A in Fortaleza and the quarter-final which would feature the winner of that in Salvador too. Obviously the dream of seeing Chile died when the Dutch beat them by two in Sao Paulo but there was still hope that we would see some fantastic matches and the one here in Fortaleza did not disappoint..
Having spent two days in Sao Paulo with unpleasant and ignorant taxi drivers and corrupt hotel staff, Fortaleza we found to be a very pleasant city with friendly people. The city is very hot, yet there is a sea breeze present in the centre and on the fantastic beaches to help cool you down. Despite suffering some gloating in and around the fan fest when Brazil knocked out Chile with great fortune, it has to be said many of the locals acknowledged their countrymen had got lucky.
We made our way to the ground by taxi about two hours before the game, which unsurprisingly took us one hour to get near the ground and even that was mainly due to some good decision making from our driver. Once we got out the taxi, the occasion really begun to sink in. The heat of the sun was ferocious and the orange, yellow and green shirts of the spectators heading to the Arena Castelão shone brilliantly in the sunshine and added to the vibrant atmosphere.
It took us another thirty minutes to make it inside the stadium, where my wife’s pregnant belly proved to be queue saver but having a bottle of water taken from us by security felt harsh and irresponsible with temperatures at this point reaching the mid-thirties and rising.
The category one tickets I had bought were surprisingly high up but fortunately they were for the north side of the stadium and out of the sunshine. Not many seats on the opposite side in the south section were filled as fans preferred to stand at the back of the section in the shade avoiding a one way ticket to skin cancer. The two pictures below show the amount of people crammed in at the back.
It soon became obvious that this was going to be like a home game for the Mexicans with them outnumbering the Dutch significantly and they also had the majority of the Brazilians and other neutrals inside this impressive arena on their side. Their national anthem was sung with gusto and when the match began it was they who looked the more comfortable in the sweltering heat.
The first half saw very little action with the hot weather really taking its toll on the quality and tempo of the match. The officials and coaches agreed that a “cooling break” was needed before half-time.
With the supply line to the Netherlands’s star players cut off, Mexico grew in confidence and it wasn’t a great surprise when Giovanni dos Santos gave El Tri the lead in the second half. At that point I soon became aware of just how many Mexicans there were drinking beer around us as their cups and their contents went flying.
Holland didn’t look like getting an equaliser but another drinks break allowed the Dutch coach Louis van Gaal a rethink and he made a couple of tweaks to his tactics. Memphis Depay who has been used as an impact sub with great success in all of Netherlands’ matches so far, helped out once again as he took up a role on the left wing with Robben switched to the right, whilst the ineffectual Robin van Persie made way for Klass-Jan Huntelaar.
The pressure from the men in orange increased and Robben forced Ochoa into making a good save in a one on one and it suddenly felt a different game. Ochoa was needed again as he brilliantly diverted Daley Blind’s close range effort onto the post. The strain of defending in the heat under immense pressure eventually proved to be too much for Mexico and poor marking after the ball was cleared from a corner led to Sneijder finding time and space to fire the Dutch level from the edge of the box with just two minutes remaining. It was a devastating blow for the Mexicans as it had looked like they were finally going to break the curse of not getting beyond the second round since when they hosted the World Cup in 1986.
Many of the neutrals cheered the Netherlands equaliser as they looked forward to extra-time. The Dutch players however sensed this was their moment and continued to attack, looking to find a winner before what would surely have been a very trying and tiring extra thirty minutes. As we entered injury time Robben picked the ball up again on the right and headed directly into the box, dribbling with pace, poise and skill teasing the various Mexican defenders into making a mistake, and it was Rafa Marquez who stupidly stuck a foot out for the Dutch speedster to fall over. It did look a clear penalty from where I was sitting but I am certainly less sure now.
Huntelaar stepped up to coolly slot the penalty into the corner to give the Netherlands a dramatic and a somewhat unlikely victory given how limited they had looked for well over an hour in this absorbing encounter in northern Brazil. Mexican players were noticeably crestfallen while many fans decked in green and sombreros were slumped in their seats around us.
The final whistle blew and the fans and players clad in orange were jubilant and relieved. There were some tense exchanges between the two sets of fans outside the ground and a fight was narrowly avoided with locals calming down the Mexican fans who were irate with Robben’s diving.
It was chaos trying to get on the buses outside the ground to head back to the city centre so we decided to head to one of the bars on the main road to the ground. There we met a friend and also one famous Dutch fan who is having a film made about his obsession with Holland. He has been following the Netherlands national team for a number of years and he told me he always believed his country would win even in the dying minutes.
Although the organisation from the kick off time to the queues for the buses could have been a lot better, overall I was very impressed with the stadium which was clean, safe and the seats had plenty of leg room and great views for all the spectators. The match itself suffered for one hour due to the intense heat but the dramatic ending made it an unforgettable occasion with the exciting Arjen Robben eventually making the difference.