Road to Rio: Sand between toes and face paint after defeat by fierce foes
The beaches of Brazil finally emerge in Fortaleza where winding up friends makes the show all the more worthwhile
After almost a week in a land famed for its beaches, we still haven't felt the sand between our toes, so it's with an extra spring in our step we arrive in Fortaleza, a sun-drenched coastal city in the far northeast.
Most of Fortaleza's hotels are located along its northern coast, and the area has the feel of a seaside holiday town, with buzzing beachside bars, cafes and makeshift stalls selling souvenirs, ice creams and coconuts.
Our flight lands in time for the second half of Italy-Costa Rica, so we head straight for the nearest bar. Randy, Tom and Rob are still clinging to faint hopes that England will qualify, and there are plans afoot for an impromptu 4,000km round-trip to Belo Horizonte for the England-Costa Rica game, but a shock 1-0 win for the effervescent Central Americans puts paid to that.
As a Scot, I'm genetically disposed to supporting ABE (anyone but England) and avoiding the proposed detour was a financial and logistical boon, but I couldn't help feeling genuinely sorry for the lads as the final whistle confirmed England's meek elimination.
Opportunities for wind-ups are seldom passed up between the four of us, and I'd been merciless since England's loss to Uruguay, but I decide it's time to give them a break as we head for our hotel.
Our accommodation to date has been good to great, so we have high hopes of a pimped out suite with panoramic sea views.
What we get is a shabby 100 sq ft shoebox crammed with four single beds. To be fair, you can just about see the sea if you hang out the window and peer through the building site next door, but for around US$400 a night it's fair to say the owners are making the most of the World Cup.
It's the football we're here for though, and we decide to warm up for the Germany-Ghana match with a game of 5-a-side down on the beach against some German lads that Tom knows.
England's failure to qualify is summarily mocked by the Germans, but it's like shooting fish in a barrel, so they ease off quickly and offer an opportunity for redemption: if Team GB emerges victorious, they'll sing England songs on camera, while we'll have to don face paint and a German flag if they win.
The sun is blazing as we kick off on a small concrete pitch by the beach, and the game is hotly contested and end-to-end.
I do my best to help my fellow Brits avoid further humiliation, but the Germans are clinical finishers and by half-time they have a commanding 4-2 lead. It's all too much for the solitary spectator, a possibly homeless local who has fallen asleep on the sidelines.
Half-time beers and the punishing heat make the second half a less high-octane affair, and the Germans run out 5-2 winners. It's all in great spirits, and we arrange to meet the Deutsche boys later for beers - even so, I'm the only one smiling in the picture of us wrapped in a German flag with red, yellow and black face paint on our cheeks.
Amid the post-match analysis, we lose track of time and realise we're cutting it fine to get to the game for kick-off. Worse still, our taxi driver tells us that they've temporarily closed the roads around the stadium, and we'll have to walk the last 3km. Fortunately, a band of opportunistic locals are waiting with bicycles, and we get a "backy" to the stadium. We'll cover a lot of distance by trip's end, but that 3km ride along a closed-off four-lane highway as the glinting steel rafters of the 67,000-seat Estadio Castelao rose up in the distance is sure to be among the best.
Pedal power makes all the difference, and we make it in time for the national anthems. Just like our morning session, it's a relentless end-to-end affair, but this time everyone goes home happy (more or less) after a thrilling 2-2 draw.
Back in town, we meet the German lads at a bar beside the Fifa Fan Fest, where I spot a familiar face in the crowd: Mark McConville, a ginger-wig-and-tartan-tammy-wearing Scot who has become an internet sensation after being filmed celebrating amid the Uruguay fans when they defeated England. He tells me he's supported Uruguay for years, and that his sudden fame - he's been interviewed by television channels and newspapers from across the globe and has even been asked to be a poster boy for Scotland's Independence campaign - is totally bizarre.
Back at the table, the boys give me - and Scotland fans - a pasting that is probably deserved, and the merry-go-round of joshing and banter continues well into the night.
Football is the greatest game in the world, but winding up your mates is a close second.