NATAL, Brazil -- Fast food. The fastest around, in fact; Middle Eastern with a dash of some Brazilian sandwiches. There's beer too, and you might need it if you stare at the logo too long -- it's a cartoon man with a giant, creepy smile, and I swear I saw it winking at me more than once. Habib's is ubiquitous, and the chain occupies the prize position of fast food restaurants: its stores serve tasty enough food for cheaper than Subway.
They're also apparently the best place in Natal to party.
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The hosts are huge favorites to lift the 2014 World Cup, and every day the Selecao play has been declared a national holiday. If you're looking for parallels, it's a lot like the Fourth of July in the U.S., except they get three of them in 11 days, and, if all goes according to plan, four more in the knockout stages.
Where do Brazilians go to celebrate what is -- or should be -- their World Cup?
With all of Natal to party in, from clubs to beaches, the crowds picked Habib’s. The one I found was right off of a main street; little more than a stand from which to order. There were some chairs and tables scattered underneath a flimsy tent. And it was the place to be for Brazil versus Mexico.
The crowds packed it early, flooding the place with yellow hours before the game. There were Neymar jerseys, Ronaldinho jerseys, Ronaldo jerseys and then a bunch of people with no shirt at all. It was unclear whether that was by design or the result of 10 beers.
People ate their pitas. They ate their sandwiches. They drank their beers. They drank a lot of beers. And there was no question who their favorite was.
Every time Neymar touched the ball there were screams and squeals — the man can do nothing wrong in this country. Even when he missed a pass, they clapped for him. Watching Neymar places the entire country perilously close to idolatry.
But not even Neymar could score that day. For some reason -- Mexico's goalkeeper Memo Ochoa the most popular villain -- the increased alcohol consumption failed to result in Brazil finding the net. I don’t know Portuguese, but whatever words followed "Ochoa" were not friendly.
The tournament favorites had been held to a 0-0 draw. It was a massively disappointing result, but the people at Habib’s who had lived and died with every pass and shot moments earlier had already moved on.
A band started playing and everyone went to the impromptu, tent-ceilinged dance floor. The more beers they drank, the more they danced, the creepy man in the logo staring longingly out at them.
Whatever the music was — it was all in Portuguese — must have been popular because everyone knew the words. They sang along and danced, and even skipped when they were heading to the bathrooms. People made out in the middle of the dance floor and the only ones who noticed were a couple who simply followed their lead.
The TV’s were showing post-match coverage, an angry Luiz Felipe Scolari flashing on the screen. Not that anyone cared. The soccer was over and the party was in full swing.
The World Cup matters, but it's not just about the soccer. It's a carnival for the whole nation, and they're not about to let a disappointing, if not actively bad result take them out of their stride. Brazilians were going to party. And in Natal, they were going to party at Habib's.