I was supposed to spend Sunday taking pictures at a rained-out Home Talent baseball game in Sauk City, Wisconsin. On Saturday, I’m hoping to be sitting in the stands for a World Cup soccer game in Kaliningrad, Russia.
That’s a thought.
Now, a lot of stuff has to go my way before then — a 12-hour flight, an 8-hour bus ride and the anxiety of going to a part of the world that I didn’t know existed three months ago. But that’s the plan and I’m fired up about it.
My World Cup experience won’t necessarily be the experience of many fans due to the fact that Kaliningrad, which is located between Poland and Lithuania, isn’t physically connected to the rest of Russia. A city with German ties that was once known as Königsberg, the area has a pretty interesting history, although I’m definitely not the person to break that history down.
The main draw for me is the World Cup — something I have been itching to attend since I was in Germany while the World Cup was there in 2006. As a 15-year-old kid in a non-North American country for the first time, that trip made an impression on me and I’m excited to immerse myself in that atmosphere again.
I never attended a game in Germany, but gathering in designated viewing areas with loads of people from around the world was something I had never experienced before and I was hooked.
I’m not expecting this trip to be the same; I’m older, I won’t have multiple weeks to get the full feel of the area, and the German soccer team was starting to explode in 2006. But it doesn’t have to be the same; taking in new experiences is the point of travel.
Observing cultural quirks is the most interesting aspect of any trip and, at least in Germany, I found that the World Cup ramped up the cultural awareness. Everywhere we went, there were German flags hanging on buildings or being waved in the air.
Obviously we see that every fall football weekend in Wisconsin, but the meaning behind the flags was different in Germany. The locals attempted to explain the importance of that outpouring of patriotism in a country that had spent the previous 60 years hiding a majority of that pride.
That’s the kind of thing that the World Cup provides, a month-long examination of a place and how its citizens operate on a local level while also being on an international scale — a scale that Kaliningrad has never been on before, as far as I know.
One of my goals in Kaliningrad is to see a new part of the world. The other is to soak in everything I can from one of the world’s largest sporting events — one that I felt I needed to go to before I am in my 30s when FIFA heads to Qatar in 2022.
When I originally started rolling this idea around in my head, the United States seemed like a lock to be a part of the tournament. That didn’t happen. Therefore, I’ll be in the stands for Croatia vs. Nigeria on day three of the event. Neither of these teams will win the World Cup and I am not going to waste any time attempting to figure out how they match up. All I know is a couple players’ names and that each team has some of the coolest-looking jerseys in the field.
Most importantly, I know that there will be fans. I know those fans will be passionate. And I know that passion will lead to an electric atmosphere.
That’s the draw of athletics. Sure, some people still like to sit in the stands with their headphones on listening to the radio broadcast, but a huge majority of the crowd isn’t interested in breaking down the action. They want to be in the atmosphere, cheering and feeding off the energy of the game. This is more evident than ever when you turn on a soccer game and hear the announcers being drowned out by fan songs for much of the game.
I like soccer, but that’s not a requirement to enjoy the World Cup. Throw in the fact that these fans come from all over the world, have been gearing up for this for four years and bring their own unique traditions — it’s enough for anybody to get invested in the action.
The United States’ team sports infrastructure is the best in the world, but we don’t really have anything that can equate to the World Cup. Our sporting world is so rich that it prevents most people from getting overly invested in one team. All I heard when Germany lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup semifinals was “imagine if the Packers lost and didn’t play again for four years.” I’ve shed enough tears while watching the Packers and Badgers to know that I wouldn’t handle that very well.
Moreover, cheering for a national team is a joint experience. We usually get that experience a few weeks every two years with the World Cup or the Olympics, but when it’s over we jump right back into baseball or basketball, an option that doesn’t really exist in many countries in the world.
So I’m outsourcing those two weeks this year. Tuesday night, I flew to Warsaw for the first leg of a trip that also likely includes stops in Kaliningrad, Prague and Bruges — where I’ll wrap up my trip by watching Belgium vs. Tunisia on June 23. I have a suspicion I’ll have something to write about when I get back, but until then I’m going to do my best to take in Europe during one of the most exciting two-week stretches the sporting world provides.