World Cup Fever!

The 2015 Women’s World Cup kicked off this week. What I love most about the World Cup, besides the fantastic soccer, is that it brings many countries and fans together for a brief period of time, all enjoying the same thing. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many World Cups now, many times while traveling the world.

I don’t remember much of the 1982, ’86 or ’90 World Cups. I started playing soccer in 1986, but I didn’t grasp the importance of the World Cup held in Mexico that year, where Argentine Diego Maradona scored the infamous “Hand of God” goal and Argentina eventually took home the trophy. That World Cup did birth the Mexican wave, which I enjoyed at sporting events growing up.

In 1990 I was aware the U.S. men’s team made the World Cup for the first time since 1950. The U.S. lost all three games and soccer might have fallen into ignominy again if not for the 1994 World Cup, held right here in the U.S.A. Meanwhile, in 1991, I followed the inaugural Women’s World Cup with great interest. By ’91 I loved soccer and dreamed of playing for my high school, and possibly beyond. I became familiar with the names of players who would dominate women’s soccer for the next ten years. Michelle Akers-Stahl, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy. These players would inspire me, and many other young girls playing in the 90s. When the U.S. team won the World Cup in 1991, it seemed like women’s soccer was on the map.

World Cup 1994 - World Cup Fever - kimberlymitchell.usBy 1994, my sisters and I were playing nearly all the time. My dad got tickets to a game in Dallas, the closest venue. The game was ’86 World Cup champions Argentina vs. Bulgaria and we were elated at the opportunity to see an aging but still dangerous Diego Maradona. Alas, Maradona’s lifestyle caught up to him. On the bus from the parking lot to the stadium, it was announced that Maradona had failed a drug test and would not play. I remember staring at my sisters and father in, well, it wasn’t disbelief, as Maradona struggled with cocaine addiction in the early 90s, but we were disappointed all the same. Bulgaria won that match 2-0, proving how unpredictable World Cups can be.

The ’94 World Cup was the first time I kept up with the men’s national team as well as the women’s, and that team, full of personalities and talent, surprised most of the world by advancing to the round of 16. It was the ’94 World Cup that hooked me on World Cup soccer.

In ’95, I watched most of the women’s world cup, where the U.S. finished a disappointing 3rd place, despite fielding a talented forward named Mia Hamm. 1998 brought a different experience. I’d finished two years of college soccer, and I was studying abroad in France, the host of the ’98 men’s tournament. The country was enthralled with the World Cup, and so was I. World Cup merchandise permeated the stores and street markets. Ironically, though I was in France, I couldn’t get a ticket to the sold out games. I watched many of them on a friend’s TV, or in the student lounge of my French dorm room.

World Cup 98 France - World Cup Fever - kimberlymitchell.usFor the final, I traveled north with a few friends. We watched the game in the home of a French family, painting our faces blue, white and red. When France defeated Brazil 3-0, our hosts insisted on driving through town to celebrate. We joined everyone else as they headed downtown to the square to celebrate. I’d never seen so many people crammed into one small town square, waving flags, setting off fireworks and cheering. It was an amazing moment.

France 98 World Cup Victory - World Cup Fever -
When the 1999 women’s world cup began, hopes were high the women would win. The team was talented and the U.S. was hosting the tournament. Ironically, I was out of the country again, this time in Mexico. I caught games sporadically on TV at my host family’s house, but the day of the final, U.S. vs China, I was on tour in a small village. While some of my classmates wandered off in search of a restaurant, I spied a bodega with a TV inside.

I hurried over and discovered the owner was indeed watching the final game, shirtless, on this hot day. He invited me to watch and we did, all the way through the thrilling penalty kicks that gave the U.S. the victory. I’m sure this man was amused at my cheering. When Brandi Chastain pulled her jersey off in celebration of her winning penalty kick, the man motioned to his own bare chest and indicated they were the same. In the spirit of celebration, I laughed, then bought some snacks and one of those sweet Mexican Cokes to celebrate.

2002 was the first World Cup my husband and I watched together. He wasn’t a soccer fan before this, but he jumped all in (We were dating. That’s what you do.) We watched every game from Korea and Japan in the early hours of the morning. The U.S team went surprisingly deep in the tournament, losing to Germany 1-0 in the quarterfinals. I learned two things – that the men’s team was improving, and that any guy who’d get up at 3 a.m. nearly every night to watch the entire world cup with me was worth marrying, if he’d ever ask me. (He did).

The 2003 women’s world cup was again hosted in the U.S. after being pulled from China over fears of SARs. And yet again, I was out of the country. I’d just moved to Yemen, where coverage of the women’s tournament was nil, and I kept up through the only source I had, the internet. The U.S. took 3rd and Germany won. I humbly congratulated my German roommate on her team’s success.

2006 has been my favorite world cup to date, even surpassing being in France for the ’98 final. The language school where I studied Arabic set up a big screen and showed the games live. We attended every game, often with fans from the nations who were playing, since the language school was so diverse. The Yemeni students came, too, and cheered loudly. I have great memories of sitting in a classroom full of soccer fans from all over the world, cheering, sometimes teasing each other when our countries squared off, and having a great time. I’m convinced an international crowd is by far the best way to view a world cup.

World Cup 2014 - World Cup Fever -

By ’07, we were back in the states. I watched the women take 3rd place that September while I started my first year of coaching preschool fitness. In 2010, we gathered with friends and family every night to watch the men’s cup on the big screen at my church. Some nights, there were many. Some nights, my husband and I would close out the games, just the two of us.

In 2011, we were disappointed again as the U.S. women lost the penalty shootout to Japan. In 2014, we gathered in my sister’s house to cheer on the men’s team to its round of 16 finish, watching nearly every game in the process.

This year, as the U.S. women try for their 3rd world cup title (and I feel we’re due!), I cheer them on with the memories of all these different world cups behind me, and the hope and expectation that future world cups will find me in different places, cheering with friends from many countries, all in love with the same game.

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