The FIFA World Cup starts tomorrow, and despite the fact that the US team did not qualify I am PUMPED! I didn’t get into the World Cup until high school and feel like a relative newcomer, but now it’s a time every four years that fills me with so much joy.
From only barely being aware that the US hosted the World Cup in 1994 to traveling to Brazil for the World Cup in 2014, it has often intersected with my travels. Here’s a look at how that’s evolved over the years.
1994 World Cup
If I only knew then what I know now.
In 1994 the World Cup was hosted in the US, and I cared approximately 0%. My dad took me on a typical Florida vacation and drove us up to Orlando to go to Disney World and Universal Studios. As we were checking in at our hotel the person at the desk mentioned all of the activity because of the World Cup. Nice tidbit, but neither one of us was interested.
Looking back on it now I could kick myself. The World Cup was right here, in my own country, within driving distance in my own state, and I couldn’t be bothered.
Luckily the US/Canada/Mexico was just awarded the 2026 World Cup, so we get a do over! Don’t squander this opportunity!
1998 World Cup
In 1998 I took my first trip out of the country. It was a middle school trip with EF Tours organized by my geography teacher. We went to London, Paris, and Barcelona.
While in our hotel in London we met some Scottish kids around our age who were traveling to France for the World Cup. Four years later, and once again I didn’t realize how cool this was.
Even when we actually got Paris I was totally oblivious to the fact that the World Cup was happening right there in the city. C’est la vie.
2002 World Cup
This was the first time I actually watched the World Cup, and once I was in I was HOOKED! This World Cup was held in Japan and South Korea, and because of the time difference the games were on really early in the morning. I was in high school at the time, so I’d watch while I was getting ready for school.
This wasn’t just my first World Cup, it was the first time I remember really paying attention to soccer. I don’t know what made me decide to start watching in the first place, but I quickly became enamored with the Brazilian team. Even having never watched soccer before it was easy to recognize the way they moved so beautifully around the field and with the ball. I wasn’t yet familiar with the term “The Beautiful Game,” but I was watching it play out in front of me.
This team of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho opened up the world of soccer to me. They also introduced me to the spirit of Brazil, leading to an intense desire to learn more about the country, people, language, and culture.
2006 World Cup
The 2006 World Cup was held in Germany. I was in college at the time and doing study abroad in France that summer. I was flying to Europe during the game where Brazil was eliminated by France. I was stunned but excited to be in France as they were moving further in the tournament.
Especially since we were trying to learn French it was so cool to hear the fan chants and songs throughout the game and try to join in as best we could. At one point everyone in the bar started jumping and shouting in unison, but we couldn’t understand what they were saying. Not to be left out we started jumping as well. If you can’t understand ’em, join ’em?
France won and the ensuing celebration was grand and immediate. It seemed like everyone who lived in Cannes was out in the streets honking horns, waving flags, and setting off flares. The Palais des Festivals, usually the home of Cannes Film Festival glitz and glamour, became the center point of the raucous night.
The next day in class we asked our French teacher about the songs and chants we heard, and she turned it into a whole lesson. We were especially eager to learn the one where everyone was jumping. It turns out they were saying, “Qui ne saute pas n’est pas français,” which about translates to “Whoever doesn’t jump isn’t French.” It’s a good thing we jumped!
For the World Cup final between France and Italy we wound up watching the game on the sidewalk in the center of town outside of an open air restaurant in view of their TVs. The atmosphere was amazing. And then Zinedine Zidane‘s infamous headbutt happened. I vividly remember a large man holding a tiny dog who leapt to his feet and cheered.
No one knew why he did it, but the murmuring seemed to conclude that he must have been provoked. Zidane was ejected, France wound up losing, and the mood of the crowd quickly changed.
Because of Cannes’s close proximity to Italy, there were still some people celebrating in the streets. It was odd to see contrasted with the crestfallen French.
The reaction to the headbutt and loss was swift and varied. In an Internet cafe (remember those?) I read an ESPN article saying that Zidane had disgraced his country. Meanwhile the people I ran into were supportive of him.
Of course they were upset at the loss, but rumor had it that Marco Materazzi who was on the receiving end of a skull to the chest had said something vile about Zidane’s mother or sister. What I kept hearing was that Zidane had defended the honor of his family and country. In the midst of articles calling him an embarrassment there were also headlines declaring Merci, Zizou! He was immortalized in songs that played on the radio for the rest of the summer.
2010 World Cup
The 2010 World Cup was held in South Africa, and in spite of what was a distant hope and dream of attending I watched most of the games streaming at my desk during my internship. I also watched games at favorite Charlotte soccer bar, Hooligans.
The World Cup final was taking place during my first trip to California. A friend and I looked for a place with good atmosphere to watch the game. We finally went to Barney’s Beanery in Burbank, which was perfect. I didn’t have a dog in the fight between Spain and the Netherlands, so I was just excited to watch a good game.
2014 World Cup
In 2014 everything changed, and I attended my first World Cup in Brazil. It was a moment twelve years in the making from the time I first watched the World Cup and fell in love with the Brazilian team. In large part as a result of the spark that was ignited with that team I had been taking Portuguese for a few years and went to Brazil with my Portuguese teacher.
We stayed at her friend’s parents’ apartment in the city of Recife and were there for the first week of the tournament. I was so excited I felt that I would spontaneously combust at any second. I went to the mall and bought my very first Brazilian jersey, which felt like the most precious garment.
We watched the opening match between Brazil and Croatia from the FIFA Fan Fest that was set up on the waterfront. What an amazing night. We were crammed in with people who were oozing excitement and pride for their country. I glanced over at my teacher during the national anthem and saw her face covered in tears. Brazil won, capping off a joyous night.
We were able to get tickets to the Japan/Ivory Coast match in Recife and had a great time riding over to the game with fans from all over the world. When we first got sight of the stadium I started to well up. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. The World Cup wasn’t just a thing in a far away place to watch on TV; I was actually there.
We had no rooting interest, but we met a lot of Japanese fans who gave us headbands and taught us their cheers. The Ivory Coast fans were playing music the whole time in the stands, which made it feel like a party. We wound up cheering for both teams each time they scored.
The great part about traveling for sports is the opportunity to get out and see places you might not visit otherwise. In addition to Recife we were able to get around Pernambuco state and see the charming city of Olinda and the beautiful Porto de Galinhas.
My teacher wasn’t able to go to the game, so I took the 5-hour bus ride up to Natal on my own and met up with a friend who was working. I was going to the game solo but wouldn’t be on my own for long, as I met some other Americans who invited me to sit with them.
We found the pregame gathering of the other Yanks and had a blast. We walked over to the stadium with others waving American flags while also dancing in the street with Ghanaian fans.
This was the spirit of the whole World Cup. I have never been an environment that was filled with that much complete and total joy, openness, and friendship. Nobody was rude; everyone was loving.
It was as though this was the place in the world where people from all countries and walks of life came together for the sole purpose of having a good time and making friends. Even at the games people were cheering for their own country while also hugging and taking pictures with opposing fans. I wish I could bottle up that feeling and let everyone get a taste of it.
Having Brazil as a backdrop contributed to the party feeling for most attendees. Many people I met said it would probably be their last World Cup for a long time, as they weren’t keen to go to Russia or Qatar.
2018 World Cup
I will not be attending this year’s World Cup in Russia, and neither will the US for that matter. I was in Morocco during last year’s World Cup Qualifying while they were making it in for the first time in years and the US was being eliminated. I had so much fun watching the games in Tamraght and feeling the local excitement, so in addition to my legacy teams of Brazil and France I’ll be throwing my weight behind the Lions of the Atlas.
Are you going to the World Cup this year? Have you been before? What are your favorite World Cup memories?