World cup 2014
Road to Rio

Road to Rio: Smoothest of transitions from Hong Kong to planet football

Elation at in-flight screening of games matched by relief at pain-free arrival and a warm welcome from a Braveheart-schooled cabbie

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 10:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 5:40am

The Sao Paulo early evening sky was a haze of pink and blue as I opened my bleary eyes for a first glimpse of Brazil. Thirty hours and back-to-back long-haul flights from Hong Kong via Istanbul had left me stiff and weary, but that sky seemed as welcoming and invigorating as a cold beer after a long hike.

The flight was, to use a football cliché, a game of two halves, and it was the first half that would dominate the highlights reel.

Given the ever-decreasing number of places that we can truly be off the grid these days, I usually embrace long-haul flights for their forced respite from the constant hum of the 24-hour news cycle and the relentless to-and-fro of social media.

Boarding the flight in Hong Kong, however, I was far less enamoured by the looming connectivity cold turkey than usual. The reason: four World Cup games being played between take-off and landing, the pick of which was England-Italy.

It seems that reports of total chaos and ever-present danger have been somewhat exaggerated
Paul Kay

It was with a mixture of delight and incredulity then that, while flicking through the inflight magazine ahead of take-off, I noticed a full-page ad celebrating the fact that passengers could watch all the World Cup games live on a dedicated TV channel during flights.

Even with the evidence in black and white, it seemed too good to be true, but after waiting to clear Chinese airspace (presumably a TV rights issue), I settled in, beer in hand, to a feast of football while also - thanks to the free Wi-fi - crowing about it on Facebook and Whatsapp.

To say I was impressed was an understatement. It was, as Grandmaster Flash once intoned, something like a phenomenon, with two previously discrete worlds colliding at 30,000 feet.

I have no doubt that Brazil will serve up more than its fair share of special moments over the next four weeks, but for inspiring sheer marvel, watching the England-Italy game while flying over the Caspian Sea as the edge of dawn glowed a smouldering burnt orange between the dark curvature of the Earth and the starry blackness of the night sky is going to take some beating.

As with all innovations, however, it didn't take long to go from astonishing to expected, and I was almost put out to discover that I wouldn't be able to watch the next round of games on the Istanbul-Sao Paulo leg, which was on a much more modest plane.

Given I hadn't slept for more than 30 hours, it was probably a blessing, lest football-induced delirium leave me a raving basket case by the time I landed in Brazil.

And so it was (relatively) refreshed that I found myself stepping out onto the tarmac at Sao Paulo's Guarulhos Airport. US-based news reports had warned of arrival into a crumbling, half-renovated airport, blighted by recent flooding, that was a relic from the military dictatorship of more than 30 years ago, followed by a two-hour wait for a taxi and crippling traffic jams that had brought the city to a standstill.

So it was a pleasant surprise to emerge into a clean, bright, new terminal building and be welcomed by friendly and helpful English-speaking staff. Indeed, with its bright yellow signage and airy baggage hall, it could easily have been mistaken for a smaller terminal in Hong Kong if someone had swapped the Portuguese for Chinese.

Through customs and baggage reclaim in a matter of minutes, I braced myself for the long and frustrating wait that would see me spend the Argentina-Bosnia game trudging slowly along the taxi queue, but once again my negative expectations were confounded as I waltzed straight into a waiting cab and sped off into the light early evening traffic.

Adverts featuring the Selecao, and Neymar Jnr in particular, endorsing a variety of products gazed down from countless billboards and cars proudly displaying Brazilian flags zipped past as we drove along the motorway.

The cab driver enthusiastically talked football in broken English, before telling me, endearingly, how much he loved Braveheart when I told him I was from Scotland.

Arriving at my hostel in an attractive and buzzing part of town, he wished me a warm welcome to Brazil then headed back to the airport to find his next fare. I grabbed a shower before making my way through the surprisingly safe-feeling streets to find my friends at a bar and watch our first game together on Brazilian soil.

Of course, it would be foolish to assume all the media doom and gloom about Brazil's hosting is unwarranted after just a few hours in the country, but it seems that reports of total chaos and ever-present danger have been somewhat exaggerated.

Or maybe I just got lucky. Either way, long may it continue.