Road to Rio: Hong Kong to Brazil a lesson in mastering time and space
After months of planning and a colossal journey, we can get down and enjoy the football at last
As any good coach will tell you, there are few things more important in football than time and space. Watch any of the game's true greats, from Zidane to Beckenbauer, Cruyff to Platini, and you get the impression the laws of physics bend to their will as they move in Matrix time to beat a man or play the next pass with complete awareness of the spatial plane.
While mastery of these two dimensions among the top teams will no doubt go a long way to determining who waltzes off with the cup on July 13, time and space in a more literal sense (as well as money, another perennial presence in the modern game) will be major factors in shaping the experience of the 600,000 or so visitors travelling to Brazil.
For me, the Road to Rio began with an auspicious piece of timing, and a scrawled note in my diary on November 11, 2013, reminding me that tickets were going on sale at 7pm sharp on the Fifa website. At that point I had only a vague idea that I wanted to go, and despite the diary entry I'd have missed the boat and probably stayed home this summer were it not for a last-minute reminder from Rob, a football teammate who'd been planning his trip with two others for months. It was a reminder that proved fortunate all round as I got through while the others didn't, and after a quick-fire bit of online form-filling against the Mission Impossible-esque countdown clock of Fifa's 15-minute time-limit, I was the proud owner of 24 tickets for six matches - and three new best friends. Game on.
The ensuing months feel like a training montage from a Rocky film, but with slo-mo dead lifts and triumphant sprints up Philadelphia steps replaced by gruelling hours of online research, conference calls and countless e-mails as the four of us - often spread across three time zones - tried to find flights, rental cars and accommodation that was available for less than the GDP of Fifa's lowest-ranked team (that's Turks and Caicos Islands, stat fans).
Geographically minded, I had a fair notion that Brazil was not a small country, but as I started to dig deeper, the distances and travel times began to boggle my mind. At some 8.5 million km, Brazil is the world's fifth largest country, stretching 4,395km from north to south and 4,320km east to west. The distance between the two host stadiums farthest from each other, Porto Alegre in the south and Fortaleza in the north, is 3,218km, or around four and a half hours' flight, which, to put it in perspective, is a tad further than Hong Kong to Kathmandu.
Our itinerary will see us clock up close to 6,500km in a month-long round-trip that starts and ends in Sao Paulo and takes in Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador and, of course, Rio.
Factor in a Hong Kong start point, however, and the distances start to take on a surreal dimension. Sao Paulo is just about as far from Hong Kong as you can get, a whopping 18,061km as the crow flies and 11 hours behind, as those who've stayed up for the opening games will no doubt be aware. The flight time is a shade less than 30 hours each way, and including changeovers the Hong Kong-Sao Paulo round trip is close to 41,500km in length, more than the circumference of the earth.
Travel plans for most fans have been further complicated by the public transport and airport strikes that have blighted Sao Paulo and Rio in the past week, not to mention unfinished infrastructure projects that were supposed to be in place and the general consensus that flight schedules within Brazil are more of a suggestion than fixed points in time.
It's something of a relief then that the tournament has started in such scintillating fashion. Between the protests, strikes, construction delays and an opening ceremony that was closer to a school play than Olympic standard, it seemed like we might be arriving at some sort of footballing Emerald City. But from the first kick, it's been the real deal where it matters most: on the pitch.
For Fifa and its cronies, one can only hope there will be a time for reckoning, but for now, it's time to rejoice in what happens in Brazil before the final whistle.
Watch this space.