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Chile soccer fans sleep on the floor of their bus parked along Leme beach near Copacabana after their team defeated Spain at a World Cup soccer game in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Leo Correa/AP)
Chile soccer fans sleep on the floor of their bus parked along Leme beach near Copacabana after their team defeated Spain at a World Cup soccer game in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Leo Correa/AP)

Soccer

World Cup a magnet for fans across Latin America Add to ...

Wilson Jimenez saved his pesos – almost a million of them. He made careful plans. And two weeks ago, he set out from his home in Santiago de Chile to see a World Cup football game played in the scorching heart of Brazil.

Then an unexpected obstacle got in his way. Snow.

Mr. Jimenez was driving to Brazil in a caravan of 800 vehicles full of Chilean soccer fans. Their journey to the Cup, set to be more than 6,000 kilometres, included the small matter of the Andes.

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FIFA awarded this World Cup to Brazil in 2007 with the vow that it would be “Latin America’s Cup” – which at the time seemed as empty a promise as any other from soccer’s governing body. But this pledge, at least, has come true. South American fans have poured into Brazil – vast Brazil, so often a mystery to its Latin neighbours, isolated by language, culture and the geographical barriers of the Andes and the Amazon.

In the end, it took Mr. Jimenez and the other Chileans, three attempts to cross the mountain range. They were forced by storms to travel an extra 1,600 kilometres north, nearly to Bolivia, before they made the crossing into Argentina and eventually emerged triumphant just in time to see Chile defeat Australia in the Brazilian city of Cuiaba.

“It’s very emotional for me because the World Cup is always so far away – this is the realization of a dream from the time I was a child,” said Mr. Jimenez, 42, a grizzled builder from Santiago. “Football is a passion for so many people, but normally only a few can have the privilege of attending the World Cup because it’s so far away.”

Ecuadoreans, Venezuelans, Guatemalans, Bolivians and Peruvians have flocked here. Mexicans and Colombians have come in huge numbers – they flew and are staying in hotels, and their boisterous presence is testament to the rise of the Latin American middle class. But many of the tens of thousands of Uruguayans, Argentines and Chileans are blue-collar fans like Mr. Jimenez; they drove to Brazil and are camping in ancient vans.

Many of these fans do not have tickets for the games. (It was a desperate Chilean school teacher who organized the invasion of Rio’s Maracana stadium, when about 100 of them stormed the media centre in an effort to see the game on June 18.) They are here simply to savour proximity to the ultimate festival in their favourite sport.

Mr. Jiminez and seven friends piled into a beat-up minivan and joined a caravan organized on Facebook by a core group of Chilean fans over the past 10 months. They are now camped en masse on a farm in this town two hours outside Rio – the nearest cheap spot organizers could find to accommodate them all. Less the cost of scalped match tickets, the trip will cost each of them about $ 2,000 (U.S.). For most, it is their first time outside their country.

“For a Latin American, this is an amazing opportunity to discover our continent – some people go to Europe or Asia on holiday but nobody ever organizes to go to Brazil,” said Carlos Gaete, 24, one of the trip planners.

In some towns, municipal governments sent traffic helicopters to guide the snaking line of vehicles, all flying Chile’s red-white-and-blue flag. It’s easy, Mr. Gaete noted, to get lost in Brazil. “Chile, you know, it’s a very skinny country and you’re never lost because it’s either north or south. Brazil though – it’s enormous.”

Argentina, on the other hand, was a hassle, he said, with police constantly trying to shake them down for bribes.

Many of the Argentine fans are also camping. After residents of Copacabana took umbrage at having their neighbourhood turned into an Argentine trailer park, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes threw open the gates to the city’s Terreirao de Samba, normally used for giant public parties, and invited them to camp there instead.

For the first time in decades, four Latin American countries are among the top 10 ticket holders for games: 60,000 Argentines; 55,000 Colombians; 40,000 Chileans; and 35,000 Mexicans. The United States is the second-largest ticket-buying country after Brazil; many of the 200,000 U.S. visitors with tickets seem to be of Mexican or Latin American origin, giving them two teams to cheer.

Tickets were both expensive and hard to get under FIFA’s lottery system (especially for people with less-than-first-rate Internet access). “To see the ambience, to be in the country that the whole world is watching is really something – but I stood outside the stadium in Rio when Chile played Spain, watching Japanese guys go in and thinking, ‘Wait, why can you go and I can’t?’ It’s a heartbreak,” said Mr. Gaete.

Jorge Castro, a 37-year-old car importer from Guatemala City, came to Rio with four friends. Guatemala has no team in the Cup, but no matter. “We’ll cheer for Brazil – I like Brazilian football,” Mr. Castro said. Nevertheless, he wore a Guatemalan flag like a cape as he danced his way down the sidewalk in Copacabana last week.

The Chilean caravan will head back to Santiago in a couple of days – Mr. Jimenez and the others have used up their holiday time and they cannot afford to stay much longer. They will drive as fast as they can back over the Andes, to make it home in time to see Chile advance to the next round on TV.

Others are staying on in Rio until the money runs out.

Martin Vedovici, a 32-year-old truck driver from Buenos Aires, is sharing a small rental apartment with five friends; they save money by toting a cooler stocked with cheap supermarket beer. “I don’t know what the trip is going to cost me in total,” he said. “Y no quiero saber – and I don’t want to know. But Argentina is going to the final. And I hope we’ll be here.”

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