• Tue
  • Sep 23, 2014
  • Updated: 4:33pm
Road to Rio
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 June, 2014, 10:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 12:14am

Road to Rio: Recife is a city that dances to its own drum beat

That's not just the smell of marijuana smoke in the air - there's a little menace, too

BIO

Paul Kay is a Hong Kong-based journalist and media consultant, and the former editor of Time Out Hong Kong and Hong Kong Tatler. A lifelong football fanatic, he is making the pilgrimage to Brazil for the World Cup to offer a fan’s-eye view of the greatest show on Earth.
 

It's hard to say why, but from the moment we touch down in Recife something feels different. It could be the weather: until now, Brazil has met our expectations with blue skies and sunshine, but Recife is as wet and windy as a Glaswegian summer.

Or perhaps it's the welcome drink. Budweiser has erected stands in host-city airports, where model-quality women in skin-tight wet-look jeans hand out free beers to new arrivals.

In Recife, however, the Buds are overshadowed by a pop-up bar between the baggage carousels dishing out highly potent free caipirinhas.

A stout Brazilian with crazed eyes starts throwing wooden chairs in response to some perceived slight

By the time we leave the airport we're well oiled and starting to realise Recife dances to the beat of its own drum.

The next day is Mexico-Croatia, and we cram onto the metro for the 25km trip to Arena Pernambuco. The other stadiums have been in the cities, but this one's in the middle of nowhere, and we chug past favelas and streets bedecked in green and yellow bunting.

There's a vague sense of foreboding as we arrive at the stadium, mainly due to the storm clouds gathering overhead, and the atmosphere is electric as the teams take the pitch, the fervent Mexican fans outnumbering their Croatian counterparts 25 to one.

Croatia need a win to progress, and the Mexicans a draw, giving the game the no-holds-barred intensity of a knockout match.

It's a tight, niggly game, and the tension is palpable. When the Mexicans finally make the breakthrough late in the second half, things boil over and a brawl breaks out in the tier below us.

Brawny Croats steam in with wild haymakers, while Mexicans pelt them with cups of beer until armed police arrive to drag out the worst of the troublemakers.

Back on the train, things are much more amicable, and a pull-up contest breaks out. The winner, who we take for a Croat, turns out to be one of several players from Squadron, another amateur team from Hong Kong, and so we wander with them into the Old Town until we hit a packed square and separate.

There's a stage at one end and the vibe is heady. Stalls selling beer and cachaca are doing brisk business, while marijuana smoke billows up at irregular intervals.

We're on our second round of beers when, without warning, a stout Brazilian with crazed eyes starts throwing wooden chairs in response to some perceived slight.

The bar staff try to subdue him, but he's screaming for blood. Somewhere in the middle of it all he takes a smack to the nose, and with blood streaming down his face smashes a bottle against the wall and swings the neck at anyone within striking distance.

Amazingly, when the police arrive they just send him on his way, but he keeps trying to charge into the bar until his friends drag him away.

One of the staff tells us the guy is off his head on glue. "But his brother is a policeman," he shrugs.

The music starts up again soon after, and the air crackles with expectation, excitement and a lingering whiff of danger as drink, drugs, hypnotic rhythms and the Brazil victory earlier in the day fuel the crowd.

Things crank up another notch when someone gets up on the stage and launches into an animated set of Brazilian funk-rock. The crowd swarms forward and somewhere in the melee Rob gets his phone stolen.

Randy and I neck a quarter bottle of whisky in five minutes flat and bounce around with a group of Mexicans as a mosh pit erupts in front of the stage. It's exhilarating and deceptively good-natured, and as the gig ends I trade high fives and hugs with my fellow moshers.

By the time I find my friends again, the square seems to be twice as mobbed as before and there's a hint of menace in the air. We decide to head for a cab and live to fight another day.

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