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Thinking like a fan while covering games is one dicey high-wire act

At times I was more stressed than the players, apart from the Brazilians that is

James Rodriguez of Colombia: the 22-year-old has a bright and rewarding future ahead of him if this tournament is anything to go by. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

An early contender for my tournament highlight came in May several weeks before a ball had been kicked when Fifa emailed to confirm the approval of the first of my media ticket requests.

This seemed an amazing luxury and enormous relief. The World Cup was coming to Brazil and many friends had put in for tickets and got nothing and now no matter what I knew I’d be seeing Messi’s Argentina in the Maracanã and be back three days later to see world champions Spain and Chile.

This level of assurance was in stark contrast to my only other World Cup experience. In 1998 I had flown to France from my home in San Francisco with no tickets, no leads on a ticket and the press full of reports about how hard and expensive tickets were to come by.

I’d emotionally prepared myself for the possibility of not getting into any game but in the end it all worked out pretty well. Touts were everywhere and friendly and reasonable and so we managed to see six games including a quarter-final before prices spiralled out of reach.

But this time around I felt like a professional insider with Fifa’s polite, ever-smiling volunteers waiting at their media centre posts to present me with free tickets to seats perched comfortably somewhere above the halfway line.

This was work

Of course at this stage I was still thinking like a football fan who was getting to bunk into games. But once the football actually started another reality came crashing in. Asking a journalist who is a fan if he can write about football is always likely to get a yes especially when the affirmative promises entry to World Cup matches.

Then the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, which Fifa in its boundless generosity had also decided to let me into, brought the sudden realisation that this was work and not like any I had done before.

Being at a game is one thing. Forming an opinion about it pretty easy too, as any fan knows. And writing about it for someone who makes a living with words should be all right as well. But doing it all at once?

This sent my stress levels rocketing in a way I had not been expecting.

It is a weird business watching a game and at the same time writing up the report that will be filed on the final whistle without yet knowing all the crucial facts that go into shaping so much the interpretation of what is taking place such as, say, the result. I found myself terrified to write in case I missed the match’s central moment but terrified not to with a deadline looming right after it ended.

It all left me with a huge respect for the writers who manage to produce the instant but elegant analyses that you have been reading elsewhere on these pages during the tournament. I kept watching those around me to see how they do it, knowing when to slip from watching to writing to watching, but could never quite catch the trick of what is one of journalism’s more specialised skills.

That means that though I got to witness in person some of the biggest games of the tournament it was probably the case that at them I was more stressed out than the players themselves (with the possible exception of the Brazilians who went into full meltdown mode against Germany, something I managed to avoid).

Reverting to type

Therefore my World Cup highlight was actually a game I was not at and could revert back to just being a fan. It took place on day two and featured Spain against Holland at the tiny Asteriar off Paulista Avenue watched with friends with all opinions disposable and everyone left free to surf along on the game’s flow without having to worry about what the greater narrative was.

It is winter in São Paulo but random fans packed into a small bar, their necks craning back to look up at a screen up on the wall, drinking beer during business hours induced World Cup nostalgia recalling as it did many a summer watching previous World Cup games in random bars in random countries.

The whole tournament still stretched out ahead and Robin Van Persie’s wonder goal promised that it could be something special. It was a diving header for the ages and hearing the shouts of appreciation from neighbouring bars it felt like the proper start of the tournament itself.

The giddiness provoked by the subsequent Dutch demolition of the world champions only increased the generalised giddiness around our table at the thought that there was another month of this to come. I’d say on the whole the tournament delivered on that promise and covering some of it from the press box has been an interesting challenge and great privilege. But crazy as it seems, once or twice up there I caught myself wishing I was back watching in the Asterix where you could just laugh with friends and toast the fact that even now in middle age World Cups are still magic. Tom Hennigan reports on South American affairs for The Irish Times