If you saw the guy in the Jacksonville Jaguars hat on ESPN just before the USA-Ghana match began, you’re about to get to know him a lot better.
His name is Cameron Norris, and he is a buddy of mine from Florida State. He’s also a die-hard U.S. Soccer fan, traveling to many of their friendlies and World Cup qualifiers.
Then, he went to all three of America’s opening-round games and saw a win, a loss and a heartbreaking tie.
Norris is a producer for ESPN, and you’ve probably seen his work. He’s manned the on-screen scoreboard (known as the “bug”) for several BCS Championships and probably a few of your favorite college’s biggest games. He’s seen a lot of the world, but few of his trips have compared to this one.
After he returned to America, I reached out to get his thoughts from the trip. The interview is below.
We’ve all heard about Brazil’s issues, but what were some of the problems you came across inside and outside the stadiums?
A few times we were warned about protests by Brazilian citizens – many are upset about Brazil hosting the World Cup and, in 2016, the Olympics, when that money can be spent elsewhere. That issue aside, we never saw anything like that. The stadiums were ready and in good shape, being at the game was an experience that will forever be tough to beat. Outside of that? Not so much, but I guess that’s part of it when you go to a World Cup.
Where does this trip rank on your list of the 19 U.S. Soccer games you’ve attended?
Obviously high, since these were the most important and meaningful I’ve been to in person. There’s always been something special about traveling across country lines to see the team play. Mexico and Panama were also amazing in their own way – the danger in Mexico, the party atmosphere in Panama. This World Cup cycle was 16 qualifying games to reach Brazil; I was fortunate enough to make it to 7.
But really, every game is great. I have stories from all 19 that make each unique. The team plays frequently enough where you don’t have to wait too long for a game, but rarely enough to make it special each time.
Weather really affected Natal and Recife while the U.S. was there. How widespread were the problems?
Natal was hit by some pretty severe rain the days before we got there, and it made for some pretty interesting cab rides. The main road on the coast was washed out at one point and we had to divert a few times until the rain stopped. Recife saw the same problems on our gameday vs. Germany – a friend reported shin deep water exiting the subway – where I believe a fair amount of fans either didn’t make it, neutrals decided not to come or got in late. We were in town early enough where we were there at kickoff without any issues.
You were very outspoken about the travel issues. What exactly happened?
These were a mess. Essentially, my trip was a package I bought through American Outlaws, the main supporters group of which I hold membership. AO limited the package to the first 500 people. They use a local travel agency in their hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, TenDot. I’ve traveled on AO packages with TenDot before and had no problems. However, those usually are hotels, game tickets, transfers to/from the game and airport. This was the first time they dealt with air transport, and charter air travel for 500 people across continental boundaries at that. They were just completely in over their head. A mom-and-pop shop like TenDot has no business running a trip like that and it showed.
Anyway, the story from Manaus – keep in mind that the distance was significant – was the equivalent of going from my place in Washington, D.C. to Denver.
All month, our itineraries said that we needed to be at the lobby at 3:30 a.m. to get our buses to the airport. At about 10 p.m., after a lot of us had gone to bed, that changed to 2 a.m. The buses didn’t show up until 3:45 a.m. anyway, so that was wasted time. We get to the airport, and we sit and wait until 7 a.m. when we actually do take off.
TenDot decided that plane seating would be open, and you were assigned to either Plane 1 or 2. That led to people lining up and sitting on the floor waiting to board, when it really probably would have been better to just assign seats and let people relax and figure it out once on board.
We get to Manaus without a problem, four hours later. The pregame party was a bust, but that’s a whole different deal. Game was great, you know the story there, 30 seconds to go we turn a win into a tie. So about 9 p.m. we are on the bus, ready to go, when TenDot tells us that our flight will not leave until 5 a.m.
Their “solution” was to dump us in the airport at 9:30 p.m., and just have us sit there and camp out and sleep on the floors until we finally checked in at 2 a.m. There were no answers, no help, and the travel agency decided to pass the blame instead of just owning up to the fact that they suck.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard is that you can either suck at your job or be an ass. You don’t get to be both. TenDot was both. For two weeks.
Did Brazil pleasantly surprise you in any way? In what ways did it disappoint you?
We were all worried about diseases and all got some forms of immunizations, especially since Manaus is a high-risk malaria zone as decided by the people who make those calls. There have also been reports of pickpockets and safety could have been a problem, but there was none of that. It’s like anytime you’re abroad, just don’t be stupid and you should be fine. The town we were in the whole time, Natal, was amazing. It’s a beach resort town that is a top destination for much of South America, so it was tourist-friendly, and the fans of different teams were great to interact with. Also, Brazil has to be one of the last few places in the world where the dollar is actually strong. Beer prices were phenomenal: $4.50 at the game, in the $2.50-3.50 range at restaurants, and $1.34 at FIFA FanFest. I’m going to miss that.
Disappointing: I thought the food would be better and more exotic. I hope nobody reading this is planning to open up a pizzeria in Brazil, because that market is saturated. They actually do have the Brazilian-style steakhouses down there and they are really a thing, though I guess they’re just called steakhouses. Anyway, lots of pizza, steaks, sushi, burgers and not a vegetable to be seen.