In his gripping account of the tragic Mt Everest expedition of 1996, Into Thin Air, author Jon Krakauer expends a few worthy chapters on what he and several other mountaineers believe to be worse than death itself — having to turn around metres away from the summit.
At sea-level on Tuesday, a good number of us unfortunately came to understand just what Krakauer was talking about.
Just seven kilometres from Aeroporto de Brasilia lies Estadio Nacional, the venue for Brazil’s final group game against Cameroon. At the Disembarque (Arrivals) hall, thousands swap their daily wear for the yellow and green of the Selecao, trooping right past us and the pneumatic doors to make the shortest of peak-bound journeys. For the rest of us, stranded and pitiful, seven kilometres have never felt longer.
“Out of all the airports in Brazil, I had to be slapped with a layover in this one,” says Roberto Custodio, who finds little solace in the fact that all airports in the country (any public space for that matter) are armed with a mini fan-zone and a few big-screen televisions. Just like the rest of our unworthy selves, he gravitates towards it anyway.
Several others have made the walk of shame before him. Half an hour before kick-off, the fan zone is brimming. Brimming in a funeral-like silence. Bags and bodies are scattered on the carpeted floor until an inch from the pimpled surface of the screen. When they speak to one another, they whisper; just as Custodio does while pointing towards the word ‘Pato’ printed on the back of his yellow jersey.
“Do you know who Alexandre Pato is?” he asks, wanting to know if the Brazilian who played for AC Milan until last season is famous outside his country. With his once great goal-scoring prowess having faded, Pato didn’t make Luiz Felipe Scolari’s World Cup squad. “I would rather be in his shoes right now than be here.”
But here he is, lying solemnly on his luggage as the national anthems begin. Few chant along, prolonging the excruciating silence. When the whistle starts proceedings on the pitch, a muffled round of applause comes brings the fan zone to life, only to die just as quickly. Quite like Hulk’s chance as early as the fifth second of the game.
They say that when you finally scale Everest, you come to closest to experiencing god. On Tuesday, those seated at the summit of Estadio Nacional began their experience by witnessing a god being slapped across his face.
Revving down the right wing, Hulk is a dribble away from getting one-on-one with Charles Itandje, Cameroon’s last line of defence. At the second last though, defender Henri Bedimo drags him down by his cheek. There’s a buzz of anticipation as Neymar Jr stands over the free-kick just outside the box. As he shanks it, the airport in Brazil howls collectively.
“Can we watch the Mexico-Croatia game instead?” suggests a Brazil fan lucky enough to be seated on a bean bag, to a ripple of giggles. With three teams in Group A in contention for two Round of 16 berths, both matches are being played simultaneously. The second one is being played in the far away Arena Pernambuco in Recife, not inches away from where we’re seated.
Viewing Brazil doesn’t get any easier, not when defender Allan Nyom’s assist helps Cameroon equalise in the 26th minute, just seconds after he was caught on camera intentionally felling Neymar miles off the ball.
Had the referee seen it, Nyom would’ve been booked, if not sent off. But as the man who shouldn’t have been there in the first place celebrated, others who desperately wanted to be there growled. For us, the wretched match had finally come alive.
Every try, touch and tackle is cheered; no one is lying down anymore. The Selecao respond by stepping up their collective game in the second half, qualifying top of the group with a resounding 4-1 win. Now, the scenes inside the airport are not too different from what it must be outside the stadium but this joy, too, is short-lived.
About an hour after the game ends, spectators from the Estadio Nacional return to the airport drunk on success, with trumpets and flags they had blown and planted recently at the summit. Now we’re back to loathing them, as they pass us on their way down from greatness.