Standing at the inner gates of the Maracanã, behind three perimeters of heavily-armed military police, ready for the biggest sporting event in the world, I had my ticket stolen.
It was a surprisingly easy mistake to make. For a split second during a photo-op with a scrum of other fans, I took my hand off my ticket in my right hand pocket and waved. When I reached back, three seconds later, it was gone.
A pickpocket, right? Had to be. I was wearing the ridiculous mask above (I'm the eagle on the left), so I was as good as blind; there was no way to see who'd made off with the stolen goods. I didn't freak out. That's not really how I roll. I went straight to my wife Prairie, told her my ticket had been stolen, and we made for the ticketing centre to have it cancelled and reprinted. (We'd received similar help on matchday in Natal, when our tickets contained numbers for seats that didn't exist in the stadium.) At this point, it was still more than three hours before kickoff, so we figured we had some time. But I was held up for lack of having a ticket at yet another security perimeter, and found myself boxed in by police who wouldn't let me proceed to get help, or retreat beyond the overall stadium perimeter. Prairie went on without me, but later returned in tears, because she'd been rebuffed by MATCH, the ticketing service that FIFA employed for the tournament. The ticketing centre was able to verify that my ticket had not yet been swiped at the gates and canceled it, but would not reprint it. With few options, we shuffled back towards the centre, to see if I (a very big guy with a loud, rumbly voice) might get more traction.
Along the way, my mind raced. I kept trying to get online and contact someone, anyone— we know a few people in the US media corps and are friendly with Sunil Gulati, our federation's president. Getting one of them to advocate for us was a long shot, but I tried it, posting a few panicked tweets to see if it would bring us any aid. Wifi was a mess, though, so it was hard to connect and communicate. I was stoic on the outside but felt gut-shot; Prairie was beside herself. A pair of local volunteers (not FIFA folks, but city workers, very nice kids who spoke excellent English and lived in Rio) asked us what was wrong, and were able to squeeze me past one of the checkpoints to the ticketing centre. There, faced with a huge black mark on the climax of our amazing once-in-a-lifetime trip, Prairie had a panic attack.
A panic attack is a physical manifestation of intense anxiety. Her limbs went numb and rubbery, and she had trouble breathing. It's terrifying, but she'd had one before and knew what was going on and what was needed to stop it. So while I kept asking the stone-faced MATCH employees to help us to no avail (we'd later learn that the president of MATCH was literally on the run from the Brazilian police for criminal activity) Prairie summoned medical help. That got us past the barricade and into the ticketing centre, but we still weren't going to get the service we desperately needed. Despite the fact that each of our tickets contained our real names, ticket request numbers, and a unique RFID chip as an anti-theft measure, it was policy to not re-print the ticket on matchday— a policy that had evidently changed between the beginning of the trip, when a FIFA rep took care of our bad tickets, and the end of it.
The scene outside the ticketing centre was a bit heartbreaking, because we were surrounded by dozens of other customers with the exact same problem— a lost or stolen ticket that needed to be canceled and reissued, but for reasons unknown ("security reasons" insisted the MATCH reps) would not be. I commiserated with a fellow American, a guy from Los Angeles named Fabian, kitted out in both a Mexico shirt and a US flag. He'd also had his ticket stolen. As we talked, one of the MATCH reps kept glaring and yelling at a nearby cameraman. "You're not allowed to film here, sir!" Fabian had spoken to the cameraman and his producer— turns out they'd not just had their tickets stolen, but their even more valuable tribune-access media credentials. It had taken a lot of paperwork to get those credentials, but even they wouldn't be reissued. Making the best of a bad situation, the film crew were preparing a video report of ticket theft at the Maracanã, and the ticketing service's unwillingness to help their distressed customers. MATCH did not like that, not one bit.
Meanwhile, reality sank in, and Prairie got medical help from the military police. We were allowed into the ticketing centre lobby to calm down, where I watched even more fans plead (mostly fruitlessly) for help. As we continued talking to folks on the scene, medics took Prairie's blood pressure and pulse to make sure she was settling down and didn't require an ambulance. The MATCH rep, while cordial, wouldn't yield an inch. I tried to persuade Prairie to see the game (after all, it was my ticket stolen, not hers) but she pointed out she'd rather rest during the match while I made the best of things and took it in for both of us. A sympathetic FIFA volunteer from England tried to make arrangements for Prairie to relax in a first-aid area while I took our one remaining ticket and went inside. If nothing else, we'd meet at the big statue of Bellini outside of Gate D afterwards.
After that ordeal, I got inside and to my seat about 30 minutes into the match. Fortunately, all I'd missed were a couple of amazing spurned chances for Gonzalo Higuain, which the jumbotron replayed relentlessly for my benefit. Well, that and his beautiful celebration of a goal he hadn't noticed had been disallowed for being about two yards offside. The Maracanã in the late afternoon, the shimmering mountains visible beyond, and the biggest game in the world was impressive, but the situation made it tough to enjoy all the way. I reached out to my seatmates, pointing to the empty seat next to mine (naturally, it remained that way for the rest of the game) and explaining what had happened. An Australian behind me nodded sympathetically. "I had a death grip on my ticket," he said, "but because I was so focused on protecting it, someone lifted my camera on the Metro!" A Belgian gent on my right had his wallet stolen the prior day. To my left, an Englishman and his young son (delightfully pulling for England's old rival Germany, because screw Argentina!) sat, with the father pointing out something important about our precious tickets. "These were issued to us weeks ago," he said, "and as I'm traveling with my son, I've really resented having to carry these incredibly valuable pieces of paper around the entire country with us. When we got the tickets at the centre, our photos were taken, our passport numbers recorded, our names printed, and RFID chips used. What was all of that extra security for, if they didn't use it to help you in the end?"
I wondered that myself. As the match wore on, my grim thoughts finally receded, and I exulted in the excitement of the hotly-contested final. Mario Goetze scored a belter of a winner, we all leaped and cheered and went nuts (except the Argentines), and it was beautiful. But when the final whistle sounded, I quickly got up to leave. The closing ceremony, the lifting of the trophy, the fireworks— bah. All I could think about was my wife, waiting for me outside. It had been a fairly terrible day, and as I made my way to the exit, I resolved to make sure I'd get her to the final, safe and sound, in Moscow in 2018. So I went to the statue of Bellini, and she wasn't there. I wandered back to the ticketing centre, where a pair of volunteers were guarding the now empty building. We'd seen them earlier in the day. They didn't speak a lick of English, nor did I much Portuguese, so I was suitably mystified when they just pointed back to the stadium with big smiles on their faces, exclaiming "Esposa! Esposa!"
Back I went, and waited a bit more. I took some great photos of the fireworks overhead, as waves of unhappy Argentines strolled past. Eventually, Prairie appeared, looking way more chipper than I'd expected. "Hell of a punchline..." she began, and then explained that my new buddy Fabian had gone to chat with her (I'd pointed her out to him when we talked) and commiserate over a tough situation. As the two settled in to hang tough during the match, a person or persons approached (Prairie and Fabian wouldn't tell me who; they'd been sworn to secrecy. As far as I'm concerned, it was the Blue Fairy from the Pinocchio fairy tale; Prairie says it was O Mão de Deus) and, with only a few words exchanged, handed them match tickets. I disbelievingly scrolled through Fabian's camera, looking at shots of the two of them celebrating inside, the Maracanã's seats, field, and skyline clearly visible behind them. Turns out they were on the opposite side of the stadium from me. Somehow, some way, the day had been saved.
Of course, I look back and wish things had gone just a little better. But I learned a valuable lesson about keeping my shit under wraps in the face of pickpocketing (it's long since become a lost art here in Boston, despite an epidemic of it in the 70s), and had the widely-known fact of FIFA's untrustworthiness (remember: just like John Oliver explained so well, soccer fans from all over the world attend the World Cup in spite of FIFA, not because of them) nicely reinforced. Despite advanced security ostensibly implemented to deter theft and scalping, FIFA and their partners weren't prepared to help their customers in their hour of need, and hundreds missed out. I'll be more careful next time— a lot more careful. As for the rest of the evening, we spent it hanging out with Fabian, our new friend, closing out our month in Brazil with celebratory brigadeiros. The spectacle of my favorite sport's pinnacle is incredible, but let's face it: new friends from all over the world are what the World Cup is REALLY about.