Saturday, March 29, 2014

My World Cup Journey


This afternoon, I booked the final flight and accommodations for my upcoming trip to Brazil and Argentina. I've been saving and planning for this trip since the last World Cup ended, in July of 2010. It's hard to believe it's only months away. I've also submitted a guest post on packing for the World Cup over at Her Packing List - watch for it! Writing my bio for the piece had me reminiscing about the journey it's taken to get here, a journey that's (not to sound dramatic, but...) lasted literally half my life.

I was born in a World Cup year. There's a picture in my baby book of Italy's Paolo Rossi lifting the cup only a few days before I was born. And that's about as much as soccer affected me for the next 12 years, aside from watching my brother play rec on weekends. I was not a sporty child. I vaguely remember my father watching World Cup '94 on our annual visit to my mother's parents in Arkansas. Even so, I paid little attention to the sport until 8th grade, when I started playing rec ball with my friends and attending D.C. United games with my family, thanks to the newly formed MLS.

For the 1998 World Cup, I was in South Africa on a trip with my church youth group. It was the perfect storm - South Africa had qualified for the first time ever and I was a soccer-crazy teenager. Despite not having tv at home, I'd followed the tournament religiously, bribing teachers to let us watch after exams with words like "historic event". I'd even walked a mile to a friend's house when no one was home, found their spare key, and let myself in to watch a match.

 My 16-year-old heart will forever belong to this dude.

On our layover in Miami, I stood outside a sports bar and watched Michael Owen score his wonder goal versus Argentina. Once in South Africa, games were much harder to come by. The few hotels we stayed in didn't have TVs and our evenings were generally scheduled anyway. Though a friend at home had promised to tape every match I'd scrawled on post-its and stuck on corresponding VHS tapes, it was frustrating. I enjoyed watching local kids playing pick-up in the streets. At one orphanage, we painted murals on the walls. Mine was of a kid playing soccer with friends, imagining himself as a player for the South African national team, Bafana Bafana. One of the little boys who wasn't with relatives for winter break had been watching us paint.  He caught my eye and gave me the best 'secret' smile. 

 

And yet, I was dying to see the final. It looked grim. We were scheduled to be staying in a beach house near East London on July 12th - a beach house with no electricity. Even though South Africa had been knocked out of the tournament, I found an ally in our bus driver, Dan, who was from Soweto. One day we'd come back to the bus early and found him watching a taped Netherlands match. Between my pleading, Dan's obvious interest, and a general sense of curiosity from most of the sports fans in our group, a small black and white tv was dug up. Cables were run through an open window and attached to what I believe was a car battery. 

The tv was turned on as we were finishing up our traditional South Africa braai. And oh, the drama - the epic match-up between Ronaldo and Zidane looked as if it wouldn't happen. Ronaldo (and we're talking Brazilian, now fat, Ronaldo here) was reported to have been rushed to the hospital the night before. He was not on the roster. And then he was. It was a weird game, perhaps not the final everyone had hoped for. Ronaldo had definitely been shaken and Zidane soldiered on, scoring two goals before Petit added a third in the closing moments.


I continued to follow soccer, at a distance once I entered college. In 2002, I found myself on another church trip (to Billings, Montana), this time with my younger brother. Though we technically weren't supposed to be watching tv, an exception was made for USA vs. Germany. It was during this match I first felt the unfairness of bad refereeing on an international level, as a Torsten Frings handball denied the US a clear goal and a possible by to the semi-finals. In 2006, I followed the tournament while road-tripping from New Orleans to Texas with my parents, but given the USA's quick exit, I wasn't as involved as I'd been in years past.

My interest in the sport was renewed just in time for the 2010 World Cup.  Thanks to my high school art students, who liked to try to use ESPN3 to watch basketball on classroom laptops, I discovered the joys of streaming sports.  The fact that the 2010 World Cup was being held in South Africa seemed fitting, as if I'd come full circle. June found me roadtripping with my parents once again, this time around northern Michigan. We sped to our hotel in Ann Arbor just in time to catch a well-fought but disappointing USA-Ghana match. We followed most of the tournament on Sirius XM radio, stopping by a winery/sports bar near Leelanau to watch when the Spain-Germany game got serious.

 
Serious Sangria.

And now the tournament is returning to Brazil, the spiritual home of the sport, after 64 years. I have tickets to the first three games the USMNT is scheduled to play, plus an additional ticket that means I'll either watch their fourth game if they advance, or catch the group winner's (almost certainly Germany) game if they don't. Currently, my itinerary is as follows:

Jun 13 Depart NYC, two days after finishing up another year of teaching art.
Jun 14-17 Natal (USA v GHA). Stay in Ponte Negra, possible daytrip to Genipabu.
Jun 18-22 Manaus (USA v POR). Arrive early and spend 3 days/2 nites on an Amazon adventure.
Jun 23-28 Recife (USA v GER). Stay south of Recife in the beach town of Porto de Galinhas.
Jun 29-Jul 1 Porto Alegre (poss. Match 54). Play the odds by booking in PA.
Jul 2-6 Buenos Aires. Escape World Cup price-gouging for a few days and see a new country in the bargain.
Jul 7-9 Iguazu Falls. A bucket list item since watching a video on butterfly migration in middle school.
Jul 10-14 Rio de Janeiro. Stay with a friend for the final. See the city where my dad and aunts spent 3 years of their childhood.
Jul 15 Arrive back in NYC. Sleep and then blog about the trip of a lifetime.

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