Sitting with the Samba boys
World Cup 2010: Johannesburg
Let me tell you about the evening I spent watching the 2010 World Cup winners-elect with some truly remarkable football fans.
Now with three weeks left of action still to be played out, far be it from me to spoil the surprises that no doubt lie in store in a tournament that produces more twists and turns with every passing hour.
But as I sat and watched Brazil dominate and destroy Ivory Coast on Sunday, no-one around me had any doubt that the team they were seeing will return to Soccer City on Sunday 11 July to win the World Cup.
They were all Brazilian, true, but the confidence they exude as supporters is absolute. Not that they enjoyed all of their evening, but more of that later.
When the group stage draw was made in December, five-time winners Brazil v Ivory Coast, the host continent's best chance of success, was widely considered to be the pick of the first-round games, which might explain why, of the 10 matches in Johannesburg that I sought accreditation for, it was the only one I had to go on a waiting list for.
Cue a fraught evening that, for what felt like an uncomfortably long time though it probably only lasted a few minutes, saw me right in the middle of a huddle of about 100 press men from every corner of the globe desperately hoping to hear their name read out and then be handed the ultimate prize: a ticket for Match 29. Charlie Bucket had nothing on this.
"BBC Sport, Jonathan Stevenson," sounded just a little bit like winning the lottery, only better and in a footballing sense. When I arrived at my seat, however, I found not a conventional journalist's berth complete with desk, internet access and a television (crucially, with replays), but what some people like to call the overflow area, without any of the above comforts. Effectively, it's a fan's seat - and with this one positioned precariously on the outer edge of said area, I found myself sitting with a large - and soon to be loud - group of Brazil fans.
If this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, they did not let me down. In fact, as soon as the two guys in front of me turned round, I knew it was going to be interesting. One of them had donned a hairless wig and fake buck teeth, and together they held up a banner which read 'There is only one Ronaldo', complete with a picture of the legendary Brazilian striker and five bullet-point reasons explaining why he was the best.
To my surprise, the mirth did not last long and as soon as the game began I realised this was a deadly serious business for the entire South American contingent around me. Brazil started sloppily and gave the ball away too easily - and the more it happened the more incensed my new companions became. It didn't take me long to realise who was bearing the brunt of much of their anger.
"Felipe Melo, FELIPE MELO," they spat, time after time after time. Even when it was not his fault that a move broke down or a pass went astray, the Juventus midfielder was held personally responsible. Eventually I broke, desperate to find out why this man was held in such disregard by the people around me, and asked the guy next to me, Joao (I think that was his name, only at the exact second he told me the fella next to him blew a you-know-what at 127 decibels).
He looked more stunned than if he had just seen the object of his ire dance round four defenders and rifle one into the top corner from 35 yards. "Serious?" he said. "Aren't you a journalist?" he ventured, screwing his eyes up in the direction of my accreditation. I had to think very carefully before deciding not to answer that one, presuming it was a trick question.
But the Felipe Melo bile continued and no matter what he did - even once launching a stunning 50-yard pass on to the instep of a marauding Maicon down the right - these people would not leave him alone. The worst part was when he was on the receiving end of an awful tackle from Kader Keita that earned the Ivorian a yellow card. More "FELIPE MELO" chat from the front row followed, so I asked Joao what they were complaining about this time. "They wish Keita had gone in harder and put Felipe Melo out of the tournament," he responded.
Brazilian supporters are not like anyone else, I was finding out at first hand. Winning, as I touched on after they beat North Korea in their first game, is not good enough - they want their team to win with panache and style. Wayne Rooney thinks he has it bad? Well, at Soccer City on Sunday, the public address announcement of coach Dunga's name was greeted by more boos than cheers, with many Brazilians abhorring his win-at-all-costs mantra and willingness to pick players like Melo, who, I believe, do such a crucial - but seemingly unappreciated - job for the team.
When I asked Joao after the final whistle had sounded - and a 3-1 win had been achieved against one of the tournament's dark horses - what Dunga was getting wrong, he told me: "There is no need for two defensive midfielders, Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva. One of them will do. When we defend, they play almost as defenders - it's like we have six on the pitch. It's not Brazilian, we don't need it, we want to attack more."
Yet despite this frustration, not one of the Brazilian fans I spoke to at Soccer City had any doubt whatsoever that, come the final, Dunga's captain Gilberto will be the man lifting the Fifa World Cup Trophy into the air as the country that once made the game beautiful celebrates a sixth World Cup win for their football-obsessed nation.
I asked another fan whether Argentina and Lionel Messi could stop them. "What, like he stopped Julio Cesar, Maicon and Lucio from winning the Champions League? No chance. Not with 11 Messis could they beat us," he said, referring to Inter's victory over Barcelona in their European semi-final last season.
When it comes to football, Brazilians seem to have an answer for everything. On the pitch and off it. Ivory Coast manager Sven-Goran Eriksson wasted no time in declaring Brazil are now the team to beat. "I think Brazil can go all the way," said the Swede, who led England to the last eight in 2002 and 2006. "To beat Brazil, you must almost be perfect."
But not even perfection, it seems, will be enough to satisfy some of the Samba Boys' supporters in South Africa this summer.