With credit to the Highlander (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kq4SqgxIKM0) every four years with two years of qualifying matches, it comes down to 32 teams in the initial round and almost five weeks of matches to crown the champion. The semi-finals were not a tremendous surprise. Brazil, the host nation, the country with the most world cup championships (five) was expected to do well. Netherlands, never a champion but often a runner up, was expected to be there. Argentina, my pick for the champion prior to the tournament had been very ordinary through the initial rounds. But with Lionel Messi my choice for the best player in the world they had managed to continue to play just well enough to get to the next round. Germany, picked by many to be the champion has been up and down. There victory over France was mixed. Quick score and then very pedestrian while they sat on their 1-0 lead. So this was the background for the two semifinal matches.
Brazilians approached the match against Germany with significant trepidation. Unwilling to admit that their team was anything but the best, the loss of Neymar to a vertebral body fracture and the suspension of Silva for a second yellow card were big issues. Silva, the anchor for their defense both physically and from his presence was probably the biggest. We left Santa Cruz at 7 AM with a plan to arrive 5 hours prior to the match, surely plenty of time to get there. One wrong turn later, and an arrival 4.5 hours prior to the match provided the first surprise. All lockers were gone. The line for credentials longer than for any match and the opportunity to get loaner equipment was minimal.
This gives me an opportunity to explain a few issues that come up at the world cup. Photographers having equipment stolen has been a huge issue. My first trip to Belo Horizonte I earned that an AP photographer had a Canon 1DX and a 400 mm, 2.8 lens stolen. Value about $19,000. In Brasilia I sat next to an AP photographer from the UK who listed for me the number of people who had things stolen. Extremely upsetting and a cautionary note since it is very difficult to always have 100% control of your equipment if you are to do your job. I don’t have the experience to know if this is usual or not, but I have never experienced anything like this before in my travels. Having a locker allows better control of things since you can lock up a portion of your equipment while doing fan shots or setting up a remote. The lack of a locker is huge. The other issue which is just as big is that even though insurance covers equipment, if you have a long lens and body stolen, what do you shoot with?
The math is relatively simple. When I was credentialed for the world cup, that gave me the opportunity to apply for credentials for individual matches. Granted a credential for an individual match, I then have to get in line (first come first serve) to get one of the tickets for a chair to shoot from. This process is very different from many settings in other sports and in the states. My chair which is associated with a ticket provides me with a two foot wide space with electrical outlets and a high speed internet connection. If you are unlucky, there is a support structure for the boards taking up some of the space in front of you. Furthermore, your neighbor and how much they try to encroach on your space can also be an issue. Photographers are divided into four categories. Category 1 is for photographers from the countries of the teams playing. Category 2 is for the host country. Category 3 is for photographers whose team is still involved in play and category 4 is for everyone else. As time goes on there are less categories. For the semi-final match I was in Category 2 but in spite of arriving early, I was number 73 in that category, bad news for getting a prime spot to shoot from.
There are many theories about the optimal place to shoot from. First choice is end-line or side-line. End-line provides you with a better opportunity to shoot vertical runs that are coming towards you. It also provides you with an opportunity to shoot players at very short distances often with contact between two of them. To be able to cover most of the front of the goal, you must not be to close to the middle. At least outside of where the box of the 18 yard box hits the end line (soccer folks will understand this). The sacrifice is that you do not get good shots of the goalie. Side line 18-20 yards out is optimal. This gives you good coverage of the goalie, midfield play and diagonal runs. If you are too far out then there is a greater likelihood of having players obstructing your view of the front of the goal.
FIFA provides you with two shooting options. Pitch is around the field on both ends and the sideline opposite where the team benches are. There is also “photo tribune” which is high up in the stadium. Since I haven’t been there, I can’t tell you what this is like. Under optimal circumstances there are about 250 photographer positions on the pitch. For the semifinal match between Brazil and Germany, by the time they reached my number, all end line spots were gone and the best I could do was a sideline position about 40 yards out…not optimal. All of this is a prelude to the actual match. The environment was electric. I have had the opportunity in the US to see lakers-celtics playoff games during the Bird/Johnson era. Bruins/Montreal playoff games in Hockey. These do not come even close to the atmosphere at this match. And of course, before the match, both teams can win!
The start of the match was exciting. End to end, crisp passing, if anything, advantage Brazil. Most informed people who were not biased felt that Germany was a likely 1-0 or 2-0 winner. Then it happened, 11th minute, Thomas Muller scores a goal for Germany. Interestingly, in the match against France, Germany moved to a more defensive style after scoring and the rest of the match was a real sleeper. Here, Germany did not clamp things down and it was game on in every way. Brazil attacked, tempo increased and we were looking forward to a very exciting match. This came to a crashing halt 12 minutes later when Miroslav Klose scored the second German goal.
I went to my first international match in Rome in 1966. Since then, I have watched countless matches in different countries and I have never watched anything close to what happened here. Germany scored in the 24th, 26th and 29th minute. Four goals in 6 minutes. Final score 7-1. What is a comparison? How about a Super Bowl that is 80-0 at the half and final score 110-7. How about a basketball game that is 50-10 at the half and 90-18 at the finish. The demolition of Brazil was complete and it was devastating. Sitting there, I saw a Brazilian team that after the second goal appeared to give up. As I watched I simply started to feel sorry for them. The impact of this event on the Brazilian people is hard to explain. This was so complete that there are no excuses, there is no explanation. Being a fan of Italy who won the WC eight years ago and has failed to make it out of the first round for the last two WCs, I understand, sort of. But in Brazil, this event has simply lost it’s luster! A little bit of the utter devastation shown here.
Of course, we have to move on. A couple of my favorites from that match below:
So we moved on the next day to Netherlands vs Argentina. Netherlands had played very well, particularly in their opening match when they spanked the last WC winner, Spain. Their last match was against Costa Rica, decided on penalty kicks. So which team would show up? Argentina, my pre-WC favorite for the finals and victory had been way less than impressive in their prior matches. This match in many ways the epitome of what can be wrong in a tournament like this. Both teams playing not to lose. Very conservative. Minimal action. Very glad I did not try to go to S Paolo to shoot in the rain! This match also decided on penalty kicks in favor of Argentina.
So I sit here today waiting. I have applied for credentials for the final. Hopefully I will get them. That would be match 15 for me. Either way truly amazing. Is anybody betting against Germany? I am! To me, even though Germany is best on paper, Argentina seems like the team of destiny. This would stick in the throats of Brazilians. But Sunday evening we will know.