Sunday, June 15, 2014

Belo Horizonte raises the roof

AppId is over the quota
AppId is over the quota

They may be a recent addition to the FIFA World Cup™ experience, but FIFA Fan Fests have developed a distinct image since their debut at Germany 2006.

Think of these hugely popular gatherings and the images immediately conjured are of fun, fans - invariably, lots of both - and instantly recognisable open-air settings. Whether on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro or Durban, or in the shadow of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate or Cape Town's Table Mountain, Fan Fests are always a sight to behold.

In Belo Horizonte, though, they are doing things a little differently. Uniquely, the capital of Minas Gerais has opted to make its Fan Fest an indoor affair, and the result is a treat not for the eyes - but the ears. Its setting is the Expominas Centre, a functional and externally unremarkable venue more accustomed to hosting concerts by global acts such as Flo Rida, David Guetta and Robert Plant.

But while the afternoon of Belo Horizonte's first Fan Fest begins three hours before kick-off with well-known local bands, the musicians know that, on this occasion, they can never be anything more than warm-up acts. Top billing has been bestowed Brazil versus Croatia - the Opening Match of the 2014 World Cup - and the din that greets A Seleção's emergence on the big screen gives an indication of what is to follow. Over 21,000 people have turned out for this party, and they've clearly planned on making their presence heard.

Indeed, while the Expominas is not bathed in sunshine, nor surrounded by famous landmarks, its roof ultimately proves to be its greatest asset. The noise, which at times is truly remarkable, simply has nowhere to escape.

"It's amazing," says Luciana, who has travelled to Expominas with a yellow-clad group of ten male and female friends. "It's like coming to a concert, but even better. We love football in Belo Horizonte and this is a special World Cup for us because Brazil, our team, are playing at home. And although we're not in the stadium, we feel like we are supporting them by coming here. The noise is fantastic."

Luciana also struck on a key element in the enduring popularity of these events, which are supported by several of FIFA's key sponsors. "It's free, so anyone can come along," she said. "We maybe couldn't get tickets for all our friends to go to a match in the stadium together. It would be too expensive for some. But here we can come as a group, have some drinks, and we're all part of the World Cup together."

Teenagers and 20-somethings, like Luciana's group, make up a large percentage of the raucous, good-natured crowd, but there are pensioners, too, and children gather their first World Cup memories. That was certainly the case for six-year-old Ana, who spent much of the match perched on the shoulders of Paulo, her 37-year-old father.

He said: "It was important for me to bring my daughter because this is her first World Cup - the first one she will remember anyway - and the first is always special. We are hoping to take her to the stadium but, for her, I would say this is probably as good as going to the stadium. The football isn't the thing that she likes most at this age - it's the crowd; the atmosphere. And both are fantastic here. I think this is something Ana will remember all her life."

The rousing way in which the national anthem was sung, with the music cut to leave seemingly everyone present singing loudly and proudly, was unforgettable enough. Yet the decibel levels were to climb yet further as Brazil's goals flew in, turning a shock early deficit into a hard-fought 3-1 win. And though it was the local fans who went home happiest, this was an atmosphere to be savoured by non-Brazilians too, with 31-year-old Manos - a Greece fan travelling from London - among several foreign revellers.

"Wherever Greece go, I try to follow," he said. "I was at the EURO [in 2012] and the last World Cup too - that was where I went to my first Fan Fest. I loved it. The people were going crazy and everyone was so friendly, no matter what team they supported. It's the same here, although it's strange to have the roof on. I like it in a way though. It was raining outside when I arrived, so this keeps everyone dry and, best of all, it makes it so loud. The national anthem... what can I say? Wow! The noise here really is something else."

Fancy sampling the Belo Horizonte Fan Fest for yourself? The Expominas Centre will be welcoming fans free of charge for all weekend matches, those at the city's Estadio Mineirao and whenever Brazil are playing. It will also be open for both semi-finals. And check out our Fan Fest section for details of all the festivities happening across the nation.

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