RIO DE JANEIRO — As I prepare to cover my first ever World Cup on location, I can't help to think back to the first game I ever saw live and my first true introduction to the madness that is football.
In 2001 when I was backpacking through Europe, I knew that my stop in Barcelona would be an ideal place to see football at its finest.
I splurged on tickets to see a match between rivals Barcelona and Valencia. I remember walking into the stadium full of anticipation. While most fans went up to their seats, I followed a tunnel down. Eventually, I came upon a staircase and as I walked up, the field spread out before my eyes. The look of utter joy on my face was enough to make the usher roll his eyes. How many had come before me and had the same reaction? The game that followed was one of the most thrilling anyone will ever see.
Barcelona's star forward, the Brazilian Rivaldo, was a magician on the field. The 80,000 fans chanted his name in unison: Ri-val-do. Ri-val-do. His first goal was a free kick that whipped over the wall and curled in off the far post from 30 yards out gave Barcelona a 1-0 lead. He gave Barca a 2-1 lead with another left-footed rocket from almost the identical spot. Both highlight-reel goals on any day, but this was no ordinary day. In the final minute of the game, it was tied 2-2. Barcelona desperately wanted a win.
The guy beside me stared at his watch and clung to a rosary, rocking back and forth in his seat. Who else but Rivaldo would answer his prayer?
With his back to goal, at the edge of the penalty area, he took a pass off his chest and in mid air, delivered a picture perfect bicycle kick to score his hat trick and win the game. I watched it unfold just yards away, sitting six rows from the pitch. When the first fans ran on to the field, I hesitated, the only person obeying the hapless usher. But as wave upon wave streamed out of the stands, I couldn't resist.
Before I knew it, I was standing at the centre of the pitch. Fans knelt down to kiss the pitch, I joined in. I took a moment to take it all in knowing I may never experience anything like that ever again.
Until now. That experience was one city, one stadium, one moment. Imagine the emotion of that one stadium projected over an entire country. As I arrive in Brazil, though I wonder if that same emotion will be felt here. Our driver in from the airport explains the dilemma facing Brazilians. They love football, they love their team, but they hate the politics of the World Cup.
I can only imagine what the atmosphere will be inside the stadium, but what about the city and the country? If it's anything like that evening in Barcelona in 2001, when a Brazilian was the hero, then we're in for a great show.
Steven D'Souza is an award-winning journalist with more than a decade of experience in broadcasting. Usually on the news beat, he has also covered major sporting events going back to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final and the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup.