The World Cup was already well underway, but it wasn't for the Americans gathered in an airport in Houston on Friday. At least, it wasn't yet.
While millions of kids all over the globe dream of playing in the World Cup, only a select few make good on that dream. Most of the rest are left to watch and cheer on television, but some just change the parameters of the dream. They might not get to play, but for some supporters, attending a World Cup is almost as special.
540 of that special breed, all Americans, had gathered in George Bush Intercontinental Airport. They had planned, saved and, in some cases, risked their jobs to make the trip to the World Cup. Two charter flights would take them to Brazil, part of a package organized by the American Outlaws, the biggest supporters group for team USA.Three years ago, the Outlaws set out a grand plan to take as many Americans to the World Cup as possible; demand has far outstripped what anyone was imagining back then.
One charter plane turned into two, and then a waiting list began. Some people didn't have the money up front and borrowed it from their parents. Others had begun saving the minute the 2010 World Cup ended. It was a big ask to come up with the thousands of dollars necessary for the trip, but to them it was never a question of desire. Dreams do that to people.
"I decided I was going to Brazil the day after [Landon] Donovan scored against Algeria," John from Houston said, almost yelling as he waved his arms like a maniac. "I went out, partied, blacked out and when I woke up the next day I said ‘I have to go next time.' The day after that I had a bank account just to put money into for this trip."
That was a common theme from people heading to Brazil -- both being inspired by that Donovan goal and the need to sober up first.
But some supporters have had this trip in the works since long before Donovan struck against Algeria. Some of them started making plans before the U.S. even qualified for their first modern World Cup in 1990.
"We have been best friends since we were babies and we always said we had to go to a World Cup together," Evan from Providence said. "With the next two in Russia and Qatar, this was our last chance for a long time."
"It took three years of saving. That and being okay with having one vacation day left for the rest of the year."
At least Evan will have a job and a vacation day when he goes back.
One fan, who asked to remain nameless, said he didn't have enough vacation to go. His boss thinks he's going to be back at work on June 23rd, only he won't until the 28th. And if he gets fired?
"Fuck it, it's the World Cup," he said.
USA v Ghana
USA v Ghana
It wasn't long ago that the only Americans at the World Cup were the players' parents and friends. Having all of the tournament's matches televised in the United States is a relatively recent development. But times have changed, and the newest generation of soccer fans sees the World Cup as a kind of sporting Mecca. It's the dream trip for the most diehard fans.
Other travelers probably had no idea what was going on when they showed up at the airport and saw hundreds of people in red, white and blue congregating. Some kicked a soccer ball around the terminal, avoiding the people dragging their bags through the middle of their game. Other gathered around phones to watch England play Italy on a screen so small they couldn't even identify the players.
As with all trips, it was just a matter of waiting to get there. And, since they were in a busy airport, waiting some more. They were so close to a dream that the impatience was getting palpable by the time they'd made it to -- and then through -- the security check. And then it was a matter of waiting at the gate.
"Boarding will begin in 20 minutes," the gate agent finally said. People cheered wildly.
"We will now begin boarding." More cheers.
"We are closing the doors for pushback," was met by a chorus of "we are going to Brazil!"
And as the plane started down the runway, picking up speed for the nine-and-a-half hour flight, one fan simply said, "Holy shit, we're actually going to Brazil."
It was his own special way of saying, "this is a dream come true."