Asleep on the plane home from L.A, Matt Johnson got a nudge from his brother, seated next to him.
Allen had accompanied Matt to Southern California for the final three matches of World Cup ’94.
Bleary-eyed and still half-awake, Matt turned toward Allen “He said to me, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this every four years, go to the World Cup,’” recalls Johnson. “I said, ‘OK.’”
He went back to sleep, and they were off. True to their word, the Johnson brothers of Seattle have since made it to every Copa Mundial.
Never mind that they’d never previously left American shores. They flew to France, Korea and Germany without hesitation. They also left without tickets nor much of an itinerary, but that was all by plan.
In the spirit of vacation season (and one which many are spending close to home), this is a little story of how two brothers, two grown men, have used soccer as an excuse to travel the world together.
Some plum matches at the world’s most-watched event. Better yet, some memories and advice to share with the rest of us, should a similar opportunity present itself.
Rules of Engagement
Johnson Brothers Rule No. 1: Book the flight. Now you’re committed.
Rule No. 2: Reserve a hotel room for your first and last nights, nothing else.
Finally: Bring cash, a backpack and a devil-may-care attitude. You’re on your own.
“You adapt,” says Johnson. “I’m not rich and your budget changes according to the country. You simply go with what opportunity presents itself.”
Making numerous acquaintances along the way, Matt and Allen experienced unexpected friendliness in France, lived the high life in Korea and contributed their share to the melting pot of cultures coming to Germany.
Matt recently came to understand that Moscovites mean business, but that’s another story.
Memories Beyond Matches
These quadrennial trips abroad rotate around soccer, yet Johnson’s memories go far beyond the matchdays.
“I remember us arriving in Paris at 6 a.m., and our hotel wouldn’t check us in until 11,” he recalls of 1998. “So we just start walking, then we lie down on the grass beneath the Eiffel Tower and watch the sun coming up. I tell you, pictures do not do it justice; the tower is so massive and cool.”
By trying to speak the language, Matt and Allen found the key to peoples’ hearts in France. Gestures and pointing beget frowns and cold shoulders.
The brothers had no hope of tackling the language for their next stop, four years later in Korea. Yet they were met by kindness once again.
“Here we were, two tall skinny Americans at the Seoul subway, and we didn’t know where to go. But an old gentleman came up and said in broken English, ‘Need help?’”
At Inchon they were walking through a busy street when a woman asked them to stop and share a meal, free of charge. She was cooking shrimp on the street corner. Says Matt: “My brother wouldn’t touch it; I kept eating until I was full.”
Some of the most memorable sights are not necessarily included in the published travel guides; such as a mini castle near Paris, guarded with gold-plated cannons.
The Johnsons believed themselves to be traveling light until they met a Chilean man in France with nothing but a fanny pack, two pairs of socks and shorts and no hotel.
“He’d wash his socks and shorts in the train station and it was very hot so he’d dry them on a bench in the park,” says Johnson. “People were often spending the night in train stations and it seemed perfectly acceptable.
“This guy wasn’t dirt poor, he was just traveling to support his team, and you saw that everywhere. We saw all these fans from Nigeria in France, and in 2006 it seemed like the whole world and Europe descended on Germany.
“It was like a festival, going to these fan zones,” he says. “Picture our Memorial Stadium with 60-foot, practically Hi-Def screens on each side, and for food it was like the Bite of Seattle, places to eat and people everywhere.”
Of course, the name of the game is to see some live soccer and coming ashore without tickets might make for some anxious moments. But no match, no matter how it’s advertised, is truly sold out, says Matt. Get out a Sharpie and grab a piece of cardboard.
“You just hold a sign and you buy whatever you can buy. In France we went to nine matches in 10 days. In Korea, nine matches in 11 days. In Germany, the prices kept going up, but our whole goal was to see three matches a day, one live and two public viewings, and we saw 10 in 11 days.
Simply by chance, sometimes they would run into a worker for a corporate partner, trying to unload tickets. Sometimes they paid scalpers the going rate. At other times, for a less desirable matchup, they waited until nearly kickoff, when the market dropped, allowing them to buy for near or below face value.
“In Korea, we were rich because the won was taking a beating from the dollar, and we were getting in for 50 American dollars. In Germany, tickets were a set price, 300 euros for any game.”
Sound steep? Maybe, but there are priorities. Says Matt: “We’re not going to nice hotels and restaurants. We’re going to watch football.”
Recently, while cleaning out a closet back home, Johnson came across his momentos.
“All my ticket stubs, pictures of when we beat Portugal in Korea,” he trails off. “That was amazing afterward. The party in the parking lot, the Americans, we didn’t know how to act.
“The feeling keeps building. You can get into every match; there will be tickets outside every venue in the world.” For a price.
But not once does Johnson even hint that the cost was too high, nor the sacrifice too great. As a matter of fact, Matt and Allen have updated their original pact.“We’ll be going back to the World Cup as long as one of us can push the other in a wheelchair. No question, we’re going.”