If the recent London riots had one positive effect – aside from bringing us back to a sense of close community, at least temporarily – it was that this fixture was hastily arranged. On the night London started burning, Ghana had been due to play Nigeria at Vicarage Road but, like most of the capital’s sport during that week, it was cancelled. Then some bright spark decided to drop Nigeria, invite a much more attractive team like Brazil instead, and play the whole shebang at Craven Cottage. Thank goodness they did.
Travelling down to London, I weighed up in my mind whether to spend £25 on this one or splurge another £50 watching what is almost guaranteed to be another soporific England performance against Wales at Wembley. I certainly made the right decision.
This was the most intoxicating match of football I’ve ever been to – futebol carnivale. Instead of the Wembley experience for what would have been the fifth time, which just insults the senses and leaves you depressed, this occasion assaulted all the senses in the best possible manner. Head already pounding from the first day of my Daily Mail induction – and as a result of the nervous two-hour sleep I’d managed the night before – the incessant Samba rhythm from the Hammersmith End hardly helped, and yet the whole evening was wonderful. The thatch and battered iron of Fulham’s lovely old-fashioned ground had not shaken so entrancingly for many, many years.
Walking in to the stadium was like stepping in to an extra’s role on a Nike commercial. You had the floodlights brilliantly illuminating the scene and then a sea of colour on all four sides. Opposite was the Putney End, often used as a ‘neutral’ stand. But there was no doubt this time about loyalties – 5,000 crazed Ghanaians, nearly all with flags and banners, were rocking to a din that most likely could be heard in the East End.
And yet we couldn’t even hear them. They were certainly outnumbered by the Brazilians, equally colourful and equally liable to burst in to spontaneous song. Two Samba bands were positioned at the front of the stand – drums, tambourines, horns – and they remained effortlessly in sync from first whistle to last, sending waves of noise which couldn’t fail to move you.
Unlike the usual staccato friendly fare, the game started at a million miles an hour. Even the weather obliged – pouring rain made for a slick surface, which suited the two enterprising sides. The reporter from the Guardian expressed it nicely when saying: ‘So frenetic and festive were proceedings that the driving rain almost seemed like ticker-tape.’ Rash challenges flew in from both teams and referee Mike Dean flashed several early yellow cards. The timing of the tackles at odds with the timing of the Brazil beat.
Ronaldinho revelled in being the ringmaster as he returned from the international wilderness. The volume rose perceptibly whenever the ball was under his spell, though the skills of every yellow-shirted player were lauded. A crescendo was reached when Neymar tucked a pass to Leandro Damiao, who delicately chipped the Ghana goalkeeper only to be disappointed by a lineman’s flag. It was the only Portuguese I picked up on the night – ‘The referee’s a w*nker.’ It was cruel to render such a work of art futile.
The Africans had given as good as they got, but any hopes of winning the contest really ended with the dismissal of Daniel Opare for trampling on Lucio. It was just past the half-hour and ruined things a little. Having forced a succession of goalscoring chances – including a Ronaldinho free-kick for which, literally, the entire stand removed their cameras and mobile phones to capture – Brazil gained a deserved goal shortly before the break. Fernandinho threaded a through-ball to Damiao, onside this time, and the forward slotted home.
The second-half offered distractions in the form of a quartet of scantily-dressed Brazilian dancers cavorting to the sound of a fat man banging a drum up on one of the executive boxes to our right. If this is the prawn sandwich brigade, I might just be converted.
But the action continued unabated. Ghana defended with great heart and ensured they were not mullered as everyone expected. Their goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey twice denied Ronaldinho set-pieces and also Pato, single-handedly at times maintaining the veneer of respectability.
The only blot on a fantastic evening came before kick-off. Huw had booked the tickets but they remained uncollected. This was a mistake – we arrived at the ground to found the two ticket collection points, run by four unfortunate women who can best be described as overwhelmed, besieged by about 10,000 fans, some with tickets to pick-up but most without. Ticket office staff were send out into the throng almost as sacrificial lambs, trying desperately to make themselves heard above the din as they clutched a bundle of envelopes with people’s tickets ordered by surname.
The scene was chaotic and dangerous. I’ve never experienced a crush at a football match before and this was quickly becoming one. In the nick of time, I heard one of the lambs shout our letter and waded through the crowd towards him. Many people didn’t get in to the ground until half-time. Many people turned back and went home. Others were fainting as more and more bodies built up. Fulham are a club with plenty of experience of not only hosting internationals, but also Premier League sell-outs, but this was an absolute shambles. It’s miraculous someone wasn’t seriously injured.
But other than this, Brazil versus Ghana was a night of pure joy. I also wonder how many people have gone from watching Bishop’s Stortford to watching Brazil in the space of three days!
Next Match: A London-based match this Saturday.