Boats, pink dolphins and a tribe gift shop: why I loved Honduras vs Switzerland

Chris Flanagan wasn't the most excited fan when the ballot handed him a trip to Manaus for a lamentable Group E tussle. But what he discovered was far from dull...

It was early December, and I was on an overnight train near Vladivostok. On the other side of the globe, the World Cup draw was being held in Brazil.

While blissfully indifferent Siberians slept around me, at 4am I was battling a failing mobile phone signal for live text coverage. The temperature outside in the Far East of Russia was minus 10 degrees, on the final leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

However, six months down the line, the heat and humidity of Manaus by the Amazon beckoned. That was the venue I had been given after the first stage of FIFA's official ticket ballot, which was held before the draw for the finals.

The two teams involved were unknown, apart from the fact it would not be hosts Brazil. It could have been world champions Spain; perhaps Messi's Argentina, or England.

But not quite. The news filtered through from the draw in Brazil – the game I would be watching was Honduras versus Switzerland. Two titans of the world game they are not: Switzerland have never progressed past the quarter-finals, while Honduras have never even won a World Cup finals match. Neither are particularly known for entertainment, either – they faced each other in the final group game of the 2010 World Cup and drew 0-0.

Was the trip even worth the effort?

Bad blood

Me and Brazil, we just don't get along. I'd tried... really I had. I bought a World Cup shirt in 1994. I didn't want Romario or Bebeto on the back, I wanted the name of the captain. He was called Rai. You probably won't remember him. He was dropped a game later and replaced by Dunga, who went on to lift the World Cup.

But this time I decided to give Brazil one last chance. A couple of months later I managed to get hold of a second ticket, for Portugal against Ghana in Brasilia.

On Monday this week, I arrived in Manaus via Rio de Janeiro. In the late afternoon, 10,000 locals gathered in an amphitheatre at the fan zone beside the vast Negro river to watch Brazil beat Cameroon.

As in Rio, Brazilian flags are everywhere, flown from cars or hanging out of apartment block windows. If enthusiasm is one of Brazil's strong points, organisation isn't – certainly by comparison to Germany in 2006. In Manaus, stadium, fan zone and ticket collection point were bafflingly positioned in opposite corners of the city several miles apart, and public transport is more or less impossible for foreigners.

But Manaus is authentic Brazil, a city of two million people unaccustomed to the attention of the world, cut off even from their own country. The good news is that you can travel by road to the rest of Brazil. The bad news is that to do so, you have to go via Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and then Peru.

Otherwise it's a plane or a boat along the Amazon, which forms from the merging of the Negro and Solimoes rivers on the eastern outskirts of Manaus. The meeting of the waters is a popular tourist attraction, with the dark of the Negro and the muddy of the Solimoes running alongside each other without mixing for several miles.

The boat tours from the city also took visiting fans to see pink river dolphins, sloths, anacondas and crocodiles with thankfully a little less bite than Luis Suarez.

There was also a visit to an indigenous Amazonian tribe whose only contact with the outside world is when the next lot of tourists arrive every five minutes. Their hut had been converted into a makeshift gift shop.

Shaqiri Shaqiri

Between 2,000 and 3,000 Swiss fans were in Manaus for the game, with fewer Hondurans. Together with the locals and fans from all around the world – and for no apparent reason, a man dressed as a giant troll – they filled the impressive 43,000 Arena Amazonia to just short of capacity.

It was Manaus' final World Cup match and kicked off in the afternoon, unlike England's defeat to Italy and the other two games in the city.

A temperature of around 30 degrees was coupled with humidity rising to 95 per cent – not that it bothered Xherdan Shaqiri. Even the most obscure World Cup match has at least one class act, and in this game it was the Bayern Munich youngster.

The left footer is Switzerland's answer to Wayne Rooney – explosive and powerfully built, capable of being brilliant one day and woeful the next. At club level he has not yet delivered everything he promised as a youngster at Basel, when he earned his big move to Bayern before finding regular football harder to come by in Germany.

But when Shaqiri plays well, Switzerland play well.

Boss Ottmar Htizfeld had vowed before this game that there would be no repeat of that 0-0 with Honduras from four years ago. Hitzfeld retires after this World Cup, but had no intention of going out in the group stage.

Switzerland had to win, and it was Shaqiri's brilliance that ensured there would be no struggle for that victory. Five minutes in there was a mutual intake of breath from the crowd as he hammered the ball into the top corner from 25 yards.

Contrary to the popular ditty, his hips did lie later in the half as he calmly sent the keeper the wrong way after being played in clear on goal. A hat-trick goal followed in the second half to make it 3-0 and seal Switzerland's progress.

Erratic Latics

Honduras's World Cup, meanwhile, has doubled up as a Wigan Athletic reunion tour – four of the squad have played for the Latics. This game was more like their 8-1 defeat at Spurs than their FA Cup final victory, although perhaps it's to be expected when the nation's fortunes rest on a goalkeeper called Noel.

Midfielder Boniek Garcia didn't quite live up to his name either, having lost the battle of the random Eastern European homages to Costa Rica's Yeltsin Tejeda.

Wilson Palacios returned from suspension, to be greeted by a banner declaring him a 'Stoke legend'. Palacios and his team-mates did, however, refrain from booting people up in the air on this occasion as Honduras attempted in vain to score the goals that would prevent their World Cup exit. Chance after chance came and went, and the match turned out to be far better than initially anticipated.

The Portuguese phrase for 'Group of Death' is in fact 'Group of Death', I have learned since I arrived in Brazil, but Group E was certainly not it. Switzerland will probably progress no further in the tournament, with Argentina awaiting them in the last 16, but their fans partied into the night in Manaus.

Despite initial fears, it was pretty unmissable.


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