Twenty years ago, my dad and I watched soccer take hold of America as the 1994 World Cup swept the country. There was something truly special about that team, especially to a seven-year-old still convinced she could be a professional soccer player. The faux-denim kits, Alexi Lalas’s ginger glory, and an emotional run into the knockout rounds – I loved it all and started to dream.
Sixteen years later, my athletic ambitions long destroyed, I hopped on a plane to Johannesburg, South Africa with one of my best friends and a backpack, ready to experience the first African-hosted World Cup. The next two weeks were unforgettable. Watching Germany-Ghana in breathtaking Soccer Stadium, meeting fans from all 32 countries at our hostels, seeing Ronaldo boo-ed live at Spain-Portugal, shark diving in “Shark Alley”, rounding up USA fans across Capetown to watch Donovan’s historic moment in USA-Algeria…I could keep going, but I’d just be repeating myself.
I left South Africa craving more. The soccer, the fans, the country – it was truly the trip of a lifetime, and all I could think about on my 32 hour itinerary home was…Brazil 2014, here I come.
Four years later, I’m about to embark on a three week journey through Brazil for the most anticipated World Cup of the century. It’s hard to describe the million thoughts running through my head – excitement to watch the game in its birthplace, anxiety for our safety when the country is in turmoil, and relief that four years of saving and planning is finally happening.
All that disappeared watching the opening Brazil-Croatia match today. I’m READY. I’m ready to chant every song in the books while we cheer on the Yanks with our fellow American Outlaws. I’m ready to watch Brazil play in their house. I’m ready to visit the mecca of futebol – Maracana Stadium. I’m ready to continue a World Cup journey, 20 years in the making.
Here’s our itinerary, message me if you’ll be down there!
June 17-20 Rio for Spain-Chile
June 20-23 Manaus for USA-Portugal
June 23-27 Recife for Mexico-Croatia and USA-Germany
June 27-29 Belo Horizonte for 1A (Brazil) vs. 2B (Spain/Netherlands/Chile)
June 29-July 3 Salvador for 1H (Belgium) vs. 2G (Portugal/Ghana/hopefully USA!)
July 3-6 Iguacu Falls
Welcome back to the second installment of This Week in Football + Futbol! If you’re new and wondering what all this weekly column nonsense is about, you can check out my first attempt here. If you’re back because you loved my scintillating original post, then I shower you with gratitude and unicorns. Enjoy!
NFL Teams Are Hurtin’
Week 7 was painful, literally. We saw a slew of major contributors go down with season-ending injuries – Reggie Wayne (Colts WR) with a torn ACL, Brian Cushing (Texans LB) with a broken leg and torn LCL, Leon Hall (Bengals CB) with an Achilles tear, Sam Bradford (Rams QB) with a torn ACL, and Jermichael Finley (Packers TE) with a terrifying collision that resulted in a severe neck injury. And those are just the season-ending ones. It’ll take a much longer post than this to talk about the larger picture here, but Sunday was yet another jarring day in the saga that is the truth about NFL player safety. If you haven’t watched it yet, I can’t recommend Frontline’s League of Denial enough, it’s truly eye-opening. Looking forward to Week 8, the array of injuries bring some interesting story lines to matchups that look pretty yawn-worthy on paper. Can the terrible Giants eke out another win over the QB-less Eagles? Will Geno avoid another pick six without Hall suiting up? Will the British become avid football (not futbol!) fans watching the Jags get stomped at Wembley? Yeah that last one was a joke.
UEFA Playoff Draw
In the final round of World Cup qualifying, the UEFA region has some interesting matchups after this week’s playoff draw. Portugal-Sweden, Ukraine-France, Greece-Romania, Iceland-Croatia – the winners punch their ticket to Brazil. By far the best story line here is Ibrahimovic vs. Ronaldo, two star players who have lifted their respective teams to contenders on the international stage. November will be fun.
Cowboys @ Lions, 1pm on Sunday
NFC showdown! Both these teams have a lot riding on this game. The Lions are 4-3 and and right on the heels of the division-leading Packers, and Dallas is also 4-3 on top of the NFC East with the Eagles only one game back. Depending on how their divisions shake out, both these teams could be vying for a playoff wild card spot, where a conference win is crucial. To add to the excitement, the Cowboys are 30th in the league against the pass, so we may be in for another Megatron explosion. Plus, it’s always fun trying to predict which Tony Romo will show up on Sunday. If it’s the Week 5 one we’re in for quite the shootout!
World Cup Draw Simulator Magically Appears on the Internet…
…immediately destroys productivity. Say goodbye to the next two hours (and months) of your life! Here’s the link, you’ve been warned. Other than resulting in total mania for futbol fans, this simulator shows just how competitive this World Cup field is. Any way you shake it, the groups look pretty ridiculous. As if we couldn’t get any more pumped for a World Cup in Brazil, this tournament is going to be a month of incredible futbol and crazy upsets. CAN’T WAIT!
futbol in a football stadium – it’s a beautiful thing
I’m trying something new and I need your full loyal-reader-of-dheerja.com support to help me through this journey – a weekly column! Welcome to the first edition of This Week in Football + Futbol, an attempt to bring together my two favorite sports that are traditionally on opposite ends of the sports fan spectrum. I’ll focus on the NFL, for those of us who love devoting 12 hours on Sunday (and Thursday and Monday…) to the most American of sports, and on international soccer, for those of us who love supporting America as an underdog in the world’s biggest sport. Here goes!
Pats @ Jets, 1pm on Sunday
My first one and I already want to hide under my bed and delete this post forever. For us Jets fans, the only thing worse than playing the Pats is playing the Pats a week after Brady throws a beautiful game-winning touchdown and we suffer a devastating loss to the hated Steelers. Really, it doesn’t get much worse than this. The silver lining? Final touchdown aside, Brady is clearly not himself this season. While a lot of the blame lies with his crappy receiving corps, his accuracy has been downright un-Bradylike. Time to bring back the hair? There’s so much hate in this rivalry, and the Jets D is a force to be reckoned with, so tune in on Sunday to see it all go down at the Meadowlands! Wilfork vs. Rex sideline eating contest anyone?
FIFA World Rankings released Thursday
The monthly FIFA Rankings are usually a source of amusement for international soccer fans. Oh you mean the organization that thinks it’s a good idea to move the World Cup to winter can accurately rank teams with no bias whatsoever? Hah. Unfortunately, this Thursday’s release has real life implications for Brazil 2014 – they’ll be used to determine what countries will be seeded in the World Cup draw this December. The US has never been seeded, and the chances are slim this time, but we’ve seen crazier things from Sepp Blatter!
Return of the Backup QBs
Week 6 had Nick Foles, Thad Lewis, and Mike Glennon as top ten fantasy QBs, above Brees and Peyton. Sometimes fantasy makes you want to punch a wall. Sometimes fantasy makes you actually punch that wall. Anyway, keep an eye out to see if any of these guys can sustain those numbers, unless they’re unseated by injuries and/or a returning QB. Foles is making a strong case to keep the reins when Vick comes back, so we might get an always-fun QB controversy as a bonus.
Mexico @ Costa Rica, 9:30pm on Tuesday
International soccer takes rivalries to a new level. Americans aren’t good at accepting inferiority, and Mexico’s historical dominance in CONCACAF has created tension of epic proportions (sharing a border doesn’t help either). I could go on, but to get a real idea you should read accounts of USA vs. Mexico in Estadio Azteca. But for the first time, Mexico has struggled in World Cup qualifying, losing to the US in a repeat of “Dos A Cero!” along the way. Not qualifying for Brazil is a very real possibility for El Tri, and tomorrow’s match is a must-win to stay alive. If their victory over Panama on Friday with this insane bicycle kick goal is any indicator that Chicharito and crew are out for blood, you can’t miss this one.
It’s been a little over a week since I left South Africa, and I’m at the crucial equilibrium of no longer being jet lagged and still remembering every detail. The trip lasted a total of 16 days, including travel days, and we split our time between Johannesburg (4 days) and Cape Town (9 days). Those 16 days were the best two weeks of my life. South Africa is a beautiful and dynamic country, and being there for the first African-hosted World Cup was an electrifying experience. I’m not going to give a minute-by-minute rundown of the trip because frankly I think that’s pretty boring and wouldn’t fulfill the dheerja.com company priorities – I serve the people. (Cue snide remark about my blog being boring. Go ahead, I can take it.) If you’ve read any of this site you know how much I love my lists, so here’s a list of things I learned in South Africa. Enjoy!
1) The World Cup brings together a pretty awesome collection of people
Soccer fans are fun and a little crazy. Soccer fans who travel to the World Cup are rowdy and pretty much insane. Soccer fans who travel all the way to South Africa for the World Cup? Absolute mayhem. It’s the kind of atmosphere where you love your team and love everyone else around you. You make friends from all over the world – Europe, South America, Australia, America, Mexico…and every person you meet has a crazy story and a fun-loving personality to go with it. Best story we heard? Meet Ian, a quiet British kid staying in a tent outside our hostel. On the way to dinner we’re all talking about our lives, our jobs, where we’re from, etc. A good 45 minutes into the conversation we finally learn that Ian spent the past 365 days biking from England to Cape Town. Yes, biking. Oh and he made a pit stop along the way to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. At some point in the Sahara he ran out of water and didn’t think he would make it, until he came across a group of nomads who took him to a Moroccan army base. If that kid doesn’t have a blog I’m quitting. Our other favorite encounter was with some boisterous Germans after Germany vs. Ghana. The story begins with Craig, who has a strange fascination with the German national anthem, and spent a good amount of time coming up with his personal version (part 1). When we ran into these Deutschland fans we immediately begged them to teach Craig the anthem so we wouldn’t have to hear “Volkswageeeen” any longer. They happily agreed (part 2). To complete the cultural exchange they surprised us with a German accented rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame (part 3). Trust me, you want to watch this video.
2) South Africans love their meat
The first word I learned was braai, the Afrikaans term for barbecue. I learned it before I learned how to say “Where’s the bathroom?”, because braai is significantly more important than any essential bodily function. South Africans barbecue an average of three times a week, so all you grill-crazy Americans are officially owned. Factor in that they can barbecue through the winter AND have ostrich, kudu, and all sorts of game available…you can just give up now. We had our braai experience at Mzoli’s outside of Cape Town where you order meat by the pound, wait two hours for it to cook while you drink at the beer garden, and then devour it caveman style.
3) Soccer City owns Cowboys Stadium
Step aside Jerry Jones, Cowboys stadium might be snazzy but nothing beats the aesthetic beauty of Soccer City. You can see the stadium from all over Johannesburg and it catches your breath every time. Designed to look like an African pot, it seats almost 85,000 fans. I’ve never seen anything like it in the US, where all the focus is on giant flat screens and high priced club seats. We watched Germany vs. Ghana here and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.
4) Sharks look like stuffed animals
Seal Island, home to 60,000 Cape Fur Seals, and Dyer Island, home to thousands of African Penguins, form the shallow channel called Shark Alley off the coast of Gansbaai. Shark Alley is home to the highest concentration of Great White sharks in the world…hello Shark Week. We went shark cage diving with Brian McFarland, a shark hunter turned researcher when hunting was outlawed, and it was easily the coolest thing I’ve ever done. The sharks were surprisingly not terrifying at all, and I’m pretty sure it had to do with the complete lack of movement in their eyes (they’re almost blind), so they looked like giant stuffed animals. They were pretty nonthreatening and could have easily bitten off a foot or hand since we were holding on to the cage bars. Here are a couple pics, keep in mind my underwater disposable camera had no zoom…
5) The world is scared of the potential in US soccer
One of my new-found Brazilian friends put it perfectly after the US lost to Ghana: “You Americans use a bazooka to kill a fly.” If the US devotes itself to soccer similar to football, baseball, and basketball, we WILL dominate. The amount of money and athletic talent in this country is unparalleled, and so much of it is wasted in the NBA and NFL funnel. If you take half the kids whose football and basketball careers end in college and put them into soccer from the get-go, America will be at the forefront of the international scene and will internally develop the sport itself to another level. It’s already there at the grassroots level, almost every kid growing up plays soccer for a few years, there’s just no incentive to keep at it. The soccer market needs to grow significantly, and it probably won’t happen after this World Cup. But the US team is only going to get better, they just need some young talent to fill a couple roster holes, and the time will come when Brazil 2014 hits. The entire world knows it, I had countless conversations with people from Europe, South America, Africa, etc. about this topic, and they’re all nervously anticipating the inevitable rise of American soccer.
6) It’s a rude awakening each time you realize how recently apartheid ended
On our way to Soweto we drove by the prison in downtown Johannesburg. Our driver shuddered, “I hate that place. So many bad memories.” We asked why. “I was imprisoned there for a year.” We asked why. He proceeded to tell us a story about his teenage self playing soccer in the park with some friends when cops walked over demanding to see their identity cards, a regulation under apartheid that specified an individual’s racial group. They had left their cards at home so they could play soccer and were thrown into jail. He’s in his early 30s. By far the most jarring part of this trip was the constant realization that apartheid happened in everyone’s lifetime. Every generation has a story to tell and every person has a vivid memory of South Africa 16 years ago. It’s an unsettling experience to talk to someone your age about their memories of the Soweto uprising. We visited the Apartheid Museum and for each date on the wall I could recall how old I was and where I was in my life.
7) Craziest fans – Spain and Brazil
We encountered fans from all 32 World Cup nations, and by my scientific and well-researched standards, the most enthusiastic (i.e. insane) fans were the Brazil and Spain supporters. Brazil is an obvious one, they’re the Yankees/Lakers/Cowboys of soccer. They have (originally bandwagon) fans from all over the world and have the strongest history as the only team to appear in every World Cup and with the most championships. It’s a sheer numbers game, more fans = more crazy people. But then there’s Spain, a team with zero World Cup championships (until now). Maybe it was the very real potential for that first championship that lit a fire under Spain fans, but they were at another level of fandom. We were lucky enough to get caught in the middle of a massive group of Espana fans outside the Spain vs. Portugal match, so I’ll let you see for yourself.