MY WORLD CUP MUSINGS: An inside look into the 2014 FIFA World Cup
I recently had the privilege of gaining access to the FIFA media centre for the entirety of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
For a month, Rio de Janeiro was my home and the buzz of world sport's biggest tournament had completely taken over.
In total, I worked at six matches at the Estadio do Maracana, including the final, which needless to say was an enormous thrill.
Throughout the four weeks of the World Cup, I spent many hours watching football matches, talking about football matches, analysing football matches and at times even dreaming of things that happened in football matches.
But it wasn't all just about sport during my stay in Rio, the Marvellous City.
There were the obligatory visits to Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, which during the group stage in particular, were teeming with fans from all over the world mainly including Argentines, Chileans, Mexicans, Americans, Australians, English and Colombians.
I also managed to take a stunning hike to Morro Dos Irmaos (Two Brothers Mountain) at the top of the Vidigal favela and visited ridiculously popular tourist destinations Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer (Christo Redentor) on Corcovado mountain.
But I digress we are here to talk football and the World Cup and there were many experiences I can share from my time as a press writer for tribalfootball.com.
Upon entering the Maracana's media centre for the first time for the Argentina v Bosnia-Herzegovina group stage match, I immediately spotted Argentine legend Juan Sebastian Veron and also bumped into Manchester United great (and recent QPR signing) Rio Ferdinand. Everton boss Roberto Martinez was deep in conversation with Spanish journalist Guillem Balague.
It was an eye-opening introduction to the back stage of the biggest sporting show in the world.
On that night, I witnessed a stunning goal from the brilliant Lionel Messi who ripped the heart out of a disciplined Bosnian side and I walked away from the stadium completely satisfied but knowing that I had more opportunities ahead of me.
I wanted to set aside my writers' cap off for a moment so travelled to Porto Alegre to watch my home team, the Socceroos, take on the mighty Dutch.
My travelling companions and I did not have high hopes for Ange Postecoglou's men but we were interested to see the team we supported so strongly as kids compete on the main stage.
Australia's performance (albeit in a 3-2 loss) surprised not only us, but all Aussies present at the match, and it showed that there is perhaps a bright future ahead for football down under.
Once again I was fortunate enough to see one of the best goals scored at a World Cup when Tim Cahill fired home an astonishing left-footed volley that rocketed in off the underside of the crossbar.
It was truly a magical moment - as was Mile Jedinak's penalty - and showed that Australians are some of the world's most passionate supporters despite our greenness at international tournaments.
My World Cup experience only continued to grow when I returned to Rio when I covered a fairly dour contest between Belgium and Russia that ended with a winning goal from teenager Divock Origi who I feel we will be seeing plenty more of in the future.
That preceded the Ecuador v France group clash that ended 0-0 but could have been a completely different story if Karim Benzema had have worn his proper shooting boots and if Ecuadorian keeper Alexander Dominguez wasn't on hand to stop absolutely everything that came his way.
It was at this match where I also had some chance meetings to write about, including a quick stop with former Brazil and Bayern Munich striker Giovane Elber.
Ex-USA goalkeeper and current Tottenham gloveman Brad Friedel also gave me a fleeting moment of his time while former Manchester United, Everton and England midfielder Phil Neville was quite accommodating.
On a chance night out in Ipanema, I was also fortunate to bump into a quarter of Socceroos who all served the country so well in Brazil.
Matt Spiranovic, Mathew Leckie, Jason Davidson and James Troisi gave us plenty of their time and it was great to speak firsthand with players who have experienced the highs and lows of a World Cup.
Next it was time for the knockout stages and luckily enough I was able to see a free-flowing Colombia side who dismantled a Uruguayan outfit devoid of Luis Suarez who was embroiled it yet another biting incident.
One of the stars of the tournament, James Rodriguez, stole the show by dazzling with two goals including the goal of the tournament which came courtesy of a sublime turn and volley from well outside the area.
Watching from the press area, the new Real Madrid signing made time stand still with his poise and control before unleashing an unstoppable effort which quickly got both the Colombian supporters and neutrals to their feet.
The quarter-final was next and the all-conquering Germany produced a professional display to edge France 1-0 thanks to Mats Hummels' early header which preceded a strong defensive performance at the other end.
The World Cup excitement was now beginning to reach fever pitch with the semi-finals upon us, especially with hosts Brazil firmly wedged in the final four, and it would be interesting to see just how the tournament would pan out.
Everybody I spoke to had their own views on what would happen. Locals did not see eye-to-eye with me regarding the amount of luck the Brazilian team had in qualifying for the semis while Argentine supporters had a fair amount of confidence despite their lack of scoring ability when Messi was well-held.
All of a sudden we saw Germany stamp their authority on proceedings by hammering Brazil 7-1, which forced grown men to openly cry in public, before a toothless Argentina edged past Holland in a penalty shootout after being outplayed for much of the 90 minutes.
It set up a Europe v South America final for the first time since Brazil beat France in 2002 and many were divided in their loyalties.
A lot of Europeans I came across were gunning for Messi and the Argentines while many Brazilians in particular had no intention of seeing their neighbours crowned as champions on their own soil so had all their support firmly behind the Germans.
When I received the email from FIFA saying my accreditation for the World Cup final had been approved, it was a complete shock to the system and something that brought me complete unbridled joy.
Never in my wildest dreams would I believe that I would be able to attend the final of the biggest sport in the world and it was a massive thrill to turn up to the stadium on game day in perfect weather conditions to be a part of football history.
The atmosphere at the Maracana on final day was nothing short of spectacular with the droves of Argentina fans in full voice while the humble yet cautious Germans were fully behind their confident team.
Messi and co. had the run of the play early in the decider before the efficient Germans took control and made attacking life difficult for La Albiceleste.
In the end it took a stunning extra-time volley from substitute Mario Gotze to break down the South Americans, delivering a fourth World Cup to Germany, who thoroughly deserved the success.
A quick meeting with Clarence Seedorf capped my World Cup experience and it was time to leave Rio after a month of obrigado, ola and jam-packed public transport.
All in all, it was an unforgettable experience to be so heavily involved with the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and something I certainly won't be forgetting anytime soon.
The honour of being present at the final is something that will sit with me for many years to come and I look forward to the next big tournament, whether it be the Euros in France in 2016 or the 2018 World Cup in Russia (or elsewhere ).
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