From Chestnut Hill to Brazil: A World Cup fan's experience

Posted: July 11, 2014

Alex Seldin of Chestnut Hill didn't have to run into Tim Howard to make his World Cup trip memorable. (Although he did; Howard's mother, too.) Seldin also spent time with Captain America and Miss Liberty and the rest of the American Outlaws roaming all over Brazil.

A lawyer and entrepreneur, and a big soccer fan since his high school playing days in the '80s, Seldin went to one previous World Cup, in Germany in 2006. Seeing another American in Nuremberg that year was usually cause to stop and have a chat, find out who he was and how he got there, trading tales.

Not in Brazil, after Seldin and his wife and two children planned for several years to make this a big vacation. They saw the first two U.S. games and also caught the England-Uruguay game. This time, stopping to chat with every American would have been like stopping at every light pole.

"I knew a lot of Americans were going," Seldin said. "But we went for a walk on the beach in Natal, a Brazilian resort town - to see Americans playing soccer on the beach, and carousing like Americans, looking like a bunch of Duke alumni at the Final Four, it was different."

This World Cup will be remembered for a biter and a flopper, and Brazil's on-field collapse for the ages, and the great Messi, and the country that wins it all.

But also for something that could have the most lasting impact: The Americans in the stands and on the streets.

"It was clear that the Americans were there in just crazy numbers," Seldin said.

FIFA, the world governing body, reported before the tournament that 196,838 tickets had been purchased by Americans, second only to Brazilians. That was more than the third-, fourth- and fifth-leading purchasers combined (Argentina, England, and Germany).

Remember when the 1994 World Cup was awarded to the United States as a kind of Big Business missionary venture to bring soccer to the masses here?

Update: It happened.

Now, when rumors fly about the 2022 World Cup's being taken away from Qatar, or more realistic talk about who gets the '26 World Cup, the United States isn't just a possibility but the favorite (with Philadelphia in the mix as a venue).

And for those who want to suggest that soccer is still a niche sport, Seldin saw plenty of evidence beyond TV ratings to refute it.

"There is no question, this crowd is just as mainstream as at a Penn State football game," Seldin said. "It was completely national. I sat on a bus with people from Indiana, people from Nebraska wearing corncob hats, Wisconsin cheeseheads. A lot from California, from the East Coast."

Or the guy Seldin ran into at a bar late one night, a former Chestnut Hill Academy and FC Delco goalkeeper.

The biggest surprise to Seldin was how the Americans were received by Brazilians and other foreign visitors. We weren't the ugly Americans.

"We were like the new Dutch," Seldin said, referring to how Dutch fans are usually appreciated for their enthusiasm and their 24-hour willingness to have a beer. "Now, the Dutch are still the Dutch. But people enjoyed the [American] spirit, the costumes. Since we don't think of ourselves as competing to win it, maybe it gives it more of a lighthearted feel. When you watch Brazilians watching a close game, they're not having fun. They're not having a party."

And that was before the home fans were forced to watch Brazil's all-time flame-out against Germany, etching 7-1 into the history of the World Cup.

Seldin has Union season tickets and believes the enthusiasm for the sport would be felt even more locally "if the Union weren't so mediocre."

That's another thing that's changed about soccer fans since '94. Just having a team doesn't cut it. Philly fans are Philly fans.

The same goes for watching the U.S. team: Seldin witnessed that last-minute goal by Portugal from a seat in the stadium, lived that feeling of being absolutely gutted, and still thinks about the ramifications.

"To be playing Portugal off the field, and the chance to go in the third group game with a chance to rest players - imagine how different that Belgium game would have looked if Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley would have been rested," he said.

One hotel Seldin stayed in also housed the families of U.S. players. Seldin saw DaMarcus Beasley, playing in his fourth World Cup, interacting with fans. And his opinion of Howard was sky high even before the goalkeeper became a sensation for his play against Belgium.

When Seldin wandered into a room set aside for national-team family activities after everyone had cleared out, he was surprised to see two people remained.

"Tim Howard and his mother were in there cleaning up," Seldin said.

There's a fitting memory for any American to take away from Brazil. Tim Howard cleaning up.


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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