Once every four years, I have my dream vacation. I go for a month to the country that is hosting the FIFA World Cup. There is nothing more satisfying for me, than having a full month in a new country, following soccer teams from around the world duke it out with each other for world supremacy. I’ve managed to work this into a great way of seeing a new country, maybe renting a bike and exploring short distances and watching top class football at the same time. I have grown up loving football or soccer, as it’s known in this country. I think my earliest memories, are of me imagining scoring the winning goal for my local team. Some kids had visions of being the next president or discovering a cure for cancer, but all I ever wanted was to be the centre forward for Manchester United.
The first time I was able to realize my dream was in 1994 when the United States hosted the finals. I flew into Los Angeles and plotted out my itinerary. Being that the States is such a huge country, logistically I couldn’t make a lot of games, so I decided to make LA and San Francisco the places that I see most of the games and tour southern and northern California on a motorcycle between games. Luckily USA was using LA as their base and Brazil were using San Francisco as their base. So between those two teams and the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco, I was able to tour one of the most beautiful coastlines I have ever encountered and watch top class competitive football. The PCH (route 1) along the central coast of California is one of the most spectacular bike rides I have ever taken. Big Sur is a stand out area and is made for bike trips. The road hugs the Cliffside and there are parts of the ride that you actually feel like you are on the edge of the world. On a sunny day the blue Pacific Ocean was so glorious and expansive, I felt like I was the only person in the world. I caught a few qualifying games that involved the USA playing Colombia and Brazil playing Cameroon. After that, I took off to Yosemite and Death Valley before catching the semi finals and the super exciting finals back in Los Angeles. Brazil won the game in a penalty shoot out where Roberto Baggio, the player of the tournament kicked a straight forward penalty shot way over the bar, losing the tournament for Italy.
The bug had bitten. I could not remember being so stimulated, excited and satisfied. I watched my favorite sport, managed to travel the county a bit on a borrowed Harley Davidson, met fellow crazy supporters from all over the world and generally just reveled in a bit of self indulgence and frivolity. I pledged to do some version of this every four years.
Twenty years later, I have accomplished my goal. I have attended every tournament since then. I visited France, Korea and Japan, Germany and in a full circle I returned to South Africa, the land of my birth to see the last Finals. I can’t choose a favorite. Each tournament has it’s own flavor. No two have been remotely similar. Korea was the most unfamiliar, for me. France had the best food. Germany offered the most efficient ticketing service. South Africa could not be beat for it’s colorfulness and the noisy Vuvuzelas. The fans were incredible in every country. I never felt unsafe at any tournament. The true spirit of goodwill emerges at this competition. I will never confuse any games with each other. I remember the goals, the stadiums and the players from each individual tournament. I’ve eaten paella in a Spanish restaurant, with Swedish fans in Korea. I’ve shared hotel rooms with Cameroonians in a French hotel. And I’ve sat in the Argentinean cheering section watching England play in France. I’ve taken days off from the competition to do a bit of exploring around the country. I’ve made it a point of getting a motorbike to rent, even for just a day at some places, so I could explore a country the way I love to do it, with the wind in my hair and the purr of the engine between my legs. Once again the uniqueness, beauty and culture of each individual country is astounding. It’s amazing what politeness, respect and gratitude can get you as a traveler. I’ve had complete strangers invite me into their homes for dinner after bumping into them in a market in the countryside of France. They hardly spoke English and I do not speak French, but somehow, we were able to communicate, break bread, share wine and laughs and learn a bit about each other. In Germany, I had people buy me dinner after they had a good giggle when hearing me trying order from the menu in German. I have travelled by myself, in big groups, with supporters clubs and total strangers. Never have I felt lost or alone. It always feels like one big community.
The World Cup is certainly the world’s game. It opens the hearts of fans around the world, which have assembled in a common place to enjoy the spirit of competition and camaraderie. In June of this year, the World Cup kicks off in Brazil. The host nation is the favorite to win. But crazier things have happened before and you can be sure, I will be there to witness them. My chosen nation to support this year is The Netherlands. So I am fully kited out in my orange outfits, ready to take on the world and their supporters.