Postcards from Russia: Searching for American fans at the World Cup
Editors’ note: This is the latest of Sam Borden’s Postcards from Russia, in which he shares his observations, fears, joys and travel stories from the 2018 World Cup.
MOSCOW — So, you may have heard there is no team from the United States at this World Cup. This is true. Everyone knows it, too, which doesn’t help with the sting. Shortly after I arrived, a journalist friend from France asked me, “What is it like to be here without the team?” and I started and stopped my answer a few times, really struggling to find the singular word to describe it.
Finally, I just shrugged.
There are plenty of fans from the United States here, of course. About 90,000 tickets were sold to fans in America, according to organizers, the most of any country outside Russia. But most of them are, presumably, here to cheer for other teams (for example, I had two dozen or so Mexican-Americans on my flight from New York, all wearing red-and-green and all heading to cheer for their team).
That means there is no singular gathering point for fans from America, no set of games at which to meet and drink and cheer.
After seeing how loud and excited the Americans were in Brazil in 2014, I’ve found myself thinking often of that awful game last October, when the U.S. team somehow couldn’t beat Trinidad and missed out on qualifying. Inevitably, I’ll follow up reliving that special memory by looking around for any American fans who might be around, craning my neck and peering around corners. On my run this morning, I perked up when I saw two men wearing what I thought were American red-white-and-blue jackets and hats — Friends! Countrymen! — only to catch up to them and see they were from Serbia.
There has been some good news for American soccer fans. On Wednesday, FIFA voted to stage the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico (most of the games will be in the U.S.). This was a big deal and the announcement was very dramatic — Morocco was also bidding — but it came at the end of FIFA’s annual Congress, which is basically a five-hour recitation of statutes, reports and committee findings that would put a cup of coffee to sleep.
At one point, as a gentleman on the stage was going through — seemingly line-by-line — FIFA’s financial report as part of its post-scandal attention to transparency, one federation delegate sidled up to me and said, “Maybe it was better when they were all corrupt and just skipped this part?” We laughed the way people do when something is (sort of) true.
Boredom aside, in the end, the vote happened, North America won and, for a moment at least, it was a bright soccer day for the United States. The energy from the bid leaders had me pumped up, too. Maybe being here alone wouldn’t be so bad!
Then came the reality check. On Thursday, I stopped into a shop near the metro on my way to the stadium in Moscow. In line in front of me was a family wearing Peru jerseys. We began chatting, and after explaining that they couldn’t wait for their team’s first game, one of the men asked where I was from.
“United States,” I said, and they all looked at me with a strange expression.
“Why are you here?” the man pressed on. I explained that I was a reporter and that I work for ESPN. They began nodding vigorously. This made sense.
“I thought you might be,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “You couldn’t be just a fan.” He bowed his head.
“Lo siento por el desastre,” he said solemnly. I’m sorry for the disaster.
I nodded. Disaster. That’s the word.