By CJ Gunther
This was the moment I had dreamed of for over 26 years. I was going to the FIFA World Cup, Cupo de Mundo. But my flight was cancelled and I was sitting in Boston’s Logan Airport rather than flying to Sao Paulo and I wondered if I would make it to Curitiba on time.
I didn’t set out to be a sport photographer, I wanted to shoot architecture and art when I first began to make pictures. But in college I discovered that I enjoyed the sport image too, and I enjoy soccer, played it as a child and through high school, I know the game so I found it easy to shoot. I was once asked, ‘How awesome was it shooting the NCAA Final four with the UConn men’s basketball team?” – “Not as cool as it would be to shoot the World Cup,’ I answered.
In 1994, I got really close to achieving that goal. I got to shoot one of the friendly matches between Ireland and Columbia when Boston was one of the World Cup host cities. But no real matches for me. Yes, in Boston we have the occasional friendly match between some National teams, or Premiere league teams, but the FIFA World Cup is not on the line when those games are played. So the level of play is not as intense. I also got really close in 2012 when I was asked to be part of epa’s team for the UEFA Euro 2012 Cup, but health reasons kept me away.
This time I was really going. I was part of the epa team. I signed up for Brazilian Portuguese classes, I studied the culture and the politics of the country. I was going and a dream goal was going to be achieved. But here I was sitting at the airport only 20 miles from home, with no flight yet.
Having never shot a FIFA World Cup match before, I was a little anxious. This soccer was going to be a faster pace than what I had ever seen before, and unlike the majority of the other photographers in attendance, my experience level would be much less. If this were baseball, there would be no anxiety at all. Top that with going to a country where everyone tells you, ‘do watch out, you are going to be held up,’ anxiety was at a high level.
My nervousness about Brazil was relieved immediately upon my arrival. I already knew to tell everyone at the airports and immigration, ‘FIFA World Cup,’ and I would get rushed through to my connecting flights, no delays at customs. It was in the queue at the last flight check-in when I began to meet people from Curitiba and felt welcomed to Brazil. At nearly every step of the process, I was met with smiling faces, and even got the beefy security official at the Media entrance to eventually smile on my arrival each day. All of this led up to covering some of the best soccer matches I had ever been to.
My colleague Rungroj Yongrit had been to the FIFA World Cup before and met up with me a few days after my arrival. I think he tried to relieve my nervousness by suggesting an early arrival time to the media center on the day of my first match, Iran V Nigeria. It was a big day for me, and I was a bit tense. We did go too early, but soon it was time to take our positions and set up the remotes. ‘Shoot it well,’ he encouraged me.
The first game.
I know soccer and knew very well that as soon as the match started I would get into my groove and make good photos. And I did. The Australian photographer next to me at the end of the match was surprised at my enjoyment. “That was not such a fine match. The action was minimal, the play could have been more exicting, hmph,” he said slyly.
‘You don’t understand.’ I replied. ‘The best I get on a regular basis is MLS. I only see this level of play on TV. To be here and see it live in person on the pitch level! With Moses right in front of me? Boom! That was awesome.’
Now it was in the past, my first FIFA World Cup match. I was so excited about being there to work that it passed so quickly. I faired well; had good action images, covered the bases on getting the key players and plays of the game. Features before the game were hard not to find. The remainder of my time in Curitiba was a great experience as well. I met many local folks, discussed politics and football, tried the food of the region, became a regular at a pub near the Arena da Baixada even spending one evening behind the bar helping make and serve caipirinhas, was invited to several homes and explored much of the city on foot all the while photographing the people and places with never a feeling of danger.
The next two matches the nervous excitement was gone, I was no longer a FIFA world cup virgin. Honduras’ Costly celebrated his goal in front of me in the match again Ecuador.
David Villa and Iniesta toyed with the Cahill shorted Australian boys for 90 minutes. The routine feeling of those two matches was long gone when Algeria faced Russia. With the streets and stands filled with several thousand Algerians, their World Cup party started early. It was a excting match; the goal by Kokorin (RUS) and the equalizer by Slimani (AGR) on my end of the pitch, the hard fought action through out the game. Algeria advanced for the first time out of the Group Play and the fans and team celebrated as if they had won the whole of the tournament. Flares and smoke bombs in the crowd, something that would never happen in the States, added to the excitement for me – I felt as if I was in Estadio do Maracana watching Algeria celebrate the FIFA World Cup Final.
Bittersweet was the feeling the next morning, headed back to Boston, but my children wanted me home, and the television there is big enough to make me feel like I was still on the pitch. Thanks Gernot.
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