It's Like Christmas in June in Natal (A Recap) by Ian Hameroff

I will be the first to admit, that it's kind of sad that after spending the last several days without a reliable Internets connection, I'm now overdosing on the 'Tubes from the departures area of the São Gonçalo do Amarante–Governador Aluízio Alves International Airport (a/k/a the "New Natal Airport"). That hasn't taken anything away from our first fantastic stop on this tour of the USMNT group stage matches.

The positive side effect of my Internet jones?

I can FINALLY share some of the backlog of images and experiences capture from my trusty Nokia Lumia 925.

Where to start.

Well, remember I mentioned all that rain in Natal?

The morning of the USA vs. Ghana match started to show signs of clearing up (or at least not raining). We took advantage of this break in the chuva to take our own pre-match stroll on the Ponta Negra beach just outside of our hotel.

Ponta Negra Beach in Natal

Ponta Negra Beach in Natal

Along our walk, we watched folks play a little beach soccer, get runs in, and show off lots of USMNT gear. I chatted quickly with a pair from the mid-west of the USA, where I said with confidence we'd win 2-1 and capture the three points. They weren't as convinced and just hoped for a solid draw. I wasn't the only one believing a 2-1 victory was in our future. A very popular shirt sold in the stores around Natal gives you the ability make your own predictions. Kind of cheap and silly, but both the one hanging in the store across from the beach and on a Brazilian spectator seated in front of us at the stadium featured the same prediction.

My prediction matched the t-shirt

My prediction matched the t-shirt

After the walk, we quickly showered up and donned our USA gear to meet with our driver (and our two new American supporter friends) to head off to our first stop: the U.S. Soccer Pre-Match Party at "Peppers Arena".

And, we waited.

Waited some more.

Okay, after a little more than "15 minutes" (or 45 minutes when you convert Natal time to the regular one you and I know so well) our awesome driver arrived and took us to the party.

At the USSF Pre-Match Party

At the USSF Pre-Match Party

I already shared some of the highlights of the party, so let's just skip ahead to the craziness at the American Outlaws gathering near the stadium.

Arena das Dunas in the Distance

Arena das Dunas in the Distance

Our driver left us at a Petrobras station on the opposite side of Av. Senador Salgado Filho and we made the hike over the pedestrian bridge to Rodizio de Pizzas to meet up with safely a "zillion" AO members already in a full lather of chatting, flag waving and other heart pumping pre-game prep. (NOTE: The photo above is from near Shopping Natal. We were MUCH closer to the stadium when dropped off).

Words cannot describe, so here's a video I shot of one of my most favorite USMNT chants:

Our little band of supporters stayed for about 20 (real) minutes before we headed off to the stadium. Our March to the Match was fun and good natured. I had a small surprise when we bumped (almost literally) into former US International and MLSer Jimmy Conrad who was filming for KICKTV just outside of the Arena das Dunas.

Getting through security and having our ticket punched was a heck of lot easier than I'd expected. Not that I was expecting chaos and bedlam, but again this is a place where they haven't finished either the airport or the roads around the stadium.

Ian and Maura at Arena das Dunas

Ian and Maura at Arena das Dunas

But. Once we got to our seats, it really hit home that we were AT A WORLD CUP MATCH AND WATCHING THE US MENS NATIONAL TEAM!!!!!!!!!

We even entered just as the USA team bus arrived to the stadium and we cheered them all the way into the venue.

Arena das Dunas is rocking during USAvGHA

Arena das Dunas is rocking during USAvGHA

The evening was amazing and we still have at least two more of these matches to attend. Holy cow, this was an amazing experience which had its highs (like Deuce's goal) and lows (Jozy's injury), and it did take us more than an hour to get back to the hotel. Some of this was due to Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade shutting down the roads. He and his 35 vehicles (and 2,000 gunners) passed by us as we waited at that very same Petrobras for our driver to navigate us through all this chaos and back to Ponta Negra.

Maura and I grabbed a super late dinner at a nearby hotel as the nightcap to our day full of adventure and thrills. We wanted to rest up a little bit, because the we had to go see the World's Largest Cashew Tree before we headed off to Manaus for round two.

Oh, we did see the tree and it's huge.

Maior cajueiro do mundo

Maior cajueiro do mundo

I Believed We Would Win! by Ian Hameroff

Sadly, the poor Internets has made my attempt to provide a full multi-media recap of our past two days impossible.

Man, I have pictures, videos and more that I'm super anxious to post to show you how awesome (and trying at times) the Natal stop on this World Cup journey has been. 

Where to begin?

After we (with our two new friends from the States) spent hours at Shopping Natal waiting for the stores to open and searching for some foul weather gear, the rain did let up in time for the pre-match festivities and the game itself. Funny how that works. We did find the last four rain ponchos in the city, which is why the rain stopped. 

Thanks to Maura's negotiation skills, we had a driver to take us to the U.S. Soccer pre-match party at "Peppers Arena" (a makeshift and temporary venue sandwiched between car dealerships), to Arena das Dunas for the game and then back to our hotel after an anticipated victory. 

The pre-match party was cool. We had screens everywhere to witness the German thrashing of CR7's Portugal, "enjoyed" some pricey cans of Budweiser beer and a Brazilian version of bad American pizza. Just after the end of the GERvPOR match, family members of the Yanks arrived to have their own pre-match meal and fun before boarding their buses for the stadium. We got to chat with a few of them, including Jozy's older brother (who is a nearly a twin with that same signature smile) and Fabian Johnson's sibling. We saw a quick game of "kick the ball and run around" being played by the future USMNT players made up of the offspring of Dempsey, Jones, Bradley and others. The cherry on top of this awesome sundae was free U.S. Soccer scarves handed out just as we left ourselves. A nice souvenir. 

Our driver took us over to the stadium area where we met up with about a "million" American Outlaws (the famed USA supporters group). I wish I could upload the video of the packed open air pizzeria and the none stop chants. I'll fix that once we get some good wireless again!

We did our own "march to the match", walking the mile from the AO pre-func to our seats in the Arena das Dunas. People were cheering and chanting the whole way and lots of good natured taunting between fans of all the teams, not just the USA and Ghana. 

I won't recap the game, but I will say what an emotional roller coaster of the Emerald City's own Clint Dempsey scoring the opening goal in 32 seconds, followed by the injuries to he and Jozy. Then the nail biting of watching the USA getting pounded by the Ghanian attack with so little possession of their own, the late goal by Ghana and then John Brooks stunning game winning header in the closing minutes that took place in the goal closest to our seats. 


That's all I can say. 

And, the rain returned just as we exited as victors. Funny, eh?

Today is our last full day in Natal, and the rain is back. We'll catch a few quick sights before finding a dry location to watch the Brazil-Mexico match. 

Oh, and I need to rest my voice as I think I lost it somewhere in Section 220 last night. Let me know if you find it!