Today, I begin my journey across the ocean to South Africa for the World Cup. To say I’m excited would be a massive understatement, like saying a building caught fire in Dresden in 1945. As a life-long fan of the game soccer (football from here on out), this isn’t something I even imagined myself ever doing, especially not at 23. Well…that’s not entirely true. When I was six, I was fairly certain I would one day grow up to be a professional soccer player, play in the World Cup and, of course, help the US win it. Thus far I have yet to accomplish my goal, but seeing as I made the wish shortly after thinking I would grow up to be an astronaut and visit Mars, maybe becoming a football Pro was a little outlandish.
I’ve had some time to reflect on how I got to this point. Several of my friends have asked me how I managed to set up a trip to the World Cup and my only answer is one my mother would nod slowly in agreement to: Stubbornness. My master plan started during a routine workday as a software programmer/ project manager, a far cry from astronaut (or football professional), with a conversation with my co-worker Steve. He, along with a number of his friends, went to the 2006 World Cup, rented bikes and rode between cities. They followed Ghana in their Cinderella upshot through the group stage and Steve’s tales was all it took to get me entranced. Biking as transportation and watching football with enthusiastic Africans in Germany? Yes, please!
At the end of January 2009, FIFA announced that the World Cup lottery for game tickets would be held in April, a full 14 months before the tournament. Steve invited me to join his ballooning group interested in the Cup, eventually totaling 12 brave souls. A team had already been chosen prior to my invitation: Paraguay. FIFA’s rules for the game lottery are fairly interesting and shockingly well thought-out. These rules are (basically) as follows:
- A team or venue had to be chosen – Paraguay for us.
- A “category” of tickets was needed – “Team Steve” settled on Category 1, $80/each ticket, decent seats.
- Citizens from a participating country were given first tickets – A person from England is more likely to get tickets to the English games than if they tried to follow Spain.
The decision to follow Paraguay mirrored the group’s previous decision of Ghana for 2006. The United States has enough citizens willing to spend money to get to the World Cup, so getting tickets to see my motherland was improbable. Instead, the group of 12 picked Paraguay for two reasons: There would be fewer Paraguayans in attendance compared to other countries and the country was almost certain to make the tournament.
The latter reason shows something bizarre in FIFA’s setup. The lottery was during the very early stages of qualification. It would take the rest of 2009 to actually determine the final 32 teams who then advance to the World Cup. So what happens if you bought tickets for a team that didn’t end up qualifying, like say Scotland? I honestly have no clue. Paraguay made it with flying colors and qualified into the South American division among teams of Myrmidon in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and so on.
“Team Steve” applied for the tickets in groups of four (the most FIFA would allow in a group) and then waited with not even a hint of anxiety. Paraguay was going to make it, damnit! Surely they knew a white, 23-year old from Chicago bought tickets and intended on seeing them in Cape Town that following year. Motivation enough for a World Cup Final berth, in my humble opinion. The tickets cost $80 apiece and yes, we had to pay to get into the lottery. After taxes and various fees, the total came to about $270 a person.
My money situation turned into a divorced Orange County housewife: desperate and in need of attention. At the end of April and through May, I decided to pull “an American” and go to Europe for a month solo. It wasn’t entirely solo as I visited friends in Liverpool and Cologne, along with convincing a friend, Paul, to trek with me for 10 days during my France-Spain-Netherlands leg. (Do you think he got any input?! No this was my Europe trip.) I figured my $270 buy-in was low enough to commit and if I didn’t end up going, I likely wouldn’t die without that cash.
From March 2009 until December, absolutely nothing happened. We knew we had tickets, but FIFA had yet to announce the groups and many airlines were withholding posting the ticket availability to South Africa. The groups were announced in December to much applause and gaping at Charlize Theron. She was part of the announcement ceremony, I guess because Nelson Mandela isn’t as sexually appealing as originally anticipated. We all had been watching airfare prices near the Cup go up from the normal price of $700-1000 to $1500-1800. The transportation cost was still affordable and somewhat expected; host countries need to make bank from the tournament to pay for all the stadiums and other general nonsense constructed for the games. The day the groups were announced, airfare doubled again in price, putting the cost above $2500.
Panic set in and people started bailing. Many in my group had begun saving for the trip immediately after purchasing the game tickets, but life circumstances and the promised financial rape of attending caused many of us to be in over our heads, myself included. I hadn’t expected the whole trip to cost much more than $3000, so staring at United Airlines tickets with my maximum now the global minimum was fairly stressful.
At the same time, I was working on a trip to Scotland in February with a friend (Scott) and my brother (Dale). Scott lived in Liverpool and when I visited him in April, we attended a Manchester United game (Red Army Unite!), his geographical distance and career status as a poor master’s student meant seeing him was a challenge. My little brother was finishing up taking a seven-month break from college to work in Germany as a data-slut for a bank. These back-stories are really only important to underline the personal investment I had in a long weekend in Edinburgh with the two of them. The cost, however, made this World Cup business something bordering an aneurysm. I have a job, but I’m not paid with semi-trailers of cash, though oh how I wish it were so.
Between December and when I returned from Scotland in February, nearly every single person in the group dropped out. The costs had spiraled as airlines gouged football fans for entry into South Africa. My stubborn personality refused to believe the World Cup had slipped through my fingers. I didn’t have the money to go and hadn’t the faintest clue what it would be like, but I couldn’t pass it up. The last few wavering people in my group quit finally due to malaria (okay really cash money) and the last one had a frustrating exit due to American Airlines’ refusal to switch the name on a purchased-with-miles ticket, can anyone refer to Customer Service 101??
Of the original 12, I was left as the sole traveler. By the time everyone was out, it was April 2010. I had already purchased my $3000 plane ticket and had no intention of forfeiting even a percentage to United to cancel the flight. Instead of bailing like my mother would have wanted, I opted to re-use the strategy that had worked so well the year previous with my trip to Europe: Talk Paul into going with me. He and I have been friends since mid-high school and as it took me only three to five minutes to get him interested in Europe, I was hopeful for a repeat to South Africa.
This time it only took two minutes. Paul accepted after “sleeping” on it for a few days. Mid-April we began the arduous task of reserving hotels in a country seven hours ahead of us. Unfortunately, due to the late timeline, the best (and cheapest) rooms were often already taken. We were able to get lodging for around $25-100 a night in each city with as many amenities as we were able to find. Transportation came next. Due to the 412 billion news articles related to the safety of commuter trains in and around Johannesburg, we looked at the high-speed railways, luxury railways, along with the bus system which crisscrossed the country. In the end, we sucked it up and bought plane tickets for our travel between cities. The main bus company’s website didn’t provide enough information related specifically to the World Cup and phone calls were fairly fruitless, so transportation became a sticking issue. Both of us were comfortable riding buses or trains, but with such a world event going on and a schedule to keep, we didn’t want to leave it up to chance. Better safe than sorry.
The “safe” part meant lots and lots of moolah though. We each ended up dropping another $1000 on intra-country flights. This put us at around $4000 apiece and we hadn’t left yet. Due to my persistence to visit Europe, I was already in debt to confirm my conquest of South Africa, so I figured might as well make sure I enjoyed myself: We got more game tickets. Our schedule only allowed us the US/Slovenia and Argentina/South Korea games, but we were able to get front row, just off the midfield line for the US game. USA USA USA!. FIFA doubled the price of the tickets to $160 and we had to scour its website each day in hopes of snagging some tickets, but finally we were able to find them.
Today marked the official beginning of the World Cup with South Africa tying with Mexico and France tying with Uruguay. All-in-all, it was a fairly boring day of football; the only major flare involving the line judge’s wrong offside call which voided a superb Mexico goal that would have given them a 2-1 victory over the host country. The best part of today for me was watching the France/Uruguay game. They were playing at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town, the site where I’ll be seeing my first World Cup game Italy/Paraguay.
All week people have asked me if I’m excited and ready to go, but I haven’t known how to respond. When I left for Europe last year, I was ecstatic to get away. This time, I’m just in awe. I remember watching the women’s US team win the Women’s World Cup; I remember Zindane’s head butt in 2006; I remember my sleep-deprived classmates who stayed up to watch the US advance its furthest in the World Cup in South Korea; I remember playing football from age six; I remember quitting football when I pulled my Achilles Tendon in high school; I remember watching Manchester United come back from a two goal deficit against Tottenham Hotspur, edging them past Liverpool and eventually to their 19th Premier League title; I remember ducking from a firework when Barça fans took to the streets to celebrate their La Liga title-claiming victory in Madrid last year.
Now I guess we’ll see what South Africa has to add to the bill.