Utahns are heading to Brazil for the World Cup
Josh Spongberg sits at his kitchen table in a canary yellow Brazil shirt, a portrait of Rio Tinto Stadium hanging behind him on the hallway wall. He's watched every World Cup since 1994, when the world's game came to the U.S., but this year is different.
This year, he's going with his wife to the World Cup, a nearly 5.400 mile journey from his home in South Jordan to Brazil, the Mecca of stylish soccer.
"Of course I've always wanted to go to a World Cup," he says excitedly. "Every four years you tell yourself, someday I'm going to go."
Spongberg is one of several Utahns heading to Brazil for the tournament beginning on June 12. Spongberg himself will be heading to the northeast region of Brazil near Recife to watch Italy-Costa Rica, Mexico-Croatia and United States-Germany, a match that could determine the U.S.'s fate in the tournament.
"I'm excited just as much for visiting Brazil as I am for the three games," he said.
Love of the game
Spongberg first caught "soccer fever" as a missionary in Argentina and through studying abroad in Spain, choosing to support Buenos Aires-based River Plate.
"Following Argentine soccer, it's given me that flavor, the drums, the confetti, the streamers, the singing, as opposed to other cultures," he said.
However, all the Utahns interviewed for this story named the club in their backyard as a main catalyst for their fandom: Real Salt Lake. Ammon Wheatley of Heber City said RSL's recent success is a gateway to the interest in the international game after midfielder Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando were named to the U.S. squad.
"Just the fact that a couple of RSL players are on the roster is impressive," Wheatley said. "No one would have ever thought that a couple of years ago."
Wheatley has tickets to five matches in Brazil, stretched between Recife, Fortaleza and Natal to see U.S.-Germany, U.S.-Ghana, Costa Rica-Italy, Costa Rica-Uruguay and Mexico-Croatia.
"The fact that I missed South Africa made me not want to miss this one. Not a chance," Wheatley said. "I don't know if ever in my lifetime again we'll have a World Cup in the Mecca of soccer in Brazil. This is kind of the no brainer, can't miss World Cup."
The cost of a World Cup trip
A trip to Brazil isn't cheap without the World Cup, let alone when prices of everything from housing to food skyrocket in the lead up to the tournament. The Utahns interviewed for this story are spending on average of about $4,000 each for their trips, a figure for some not including food and expenses when they actually arrive in Brazil.
For James and Kathryn Delorey, budgeting for the tournament was extra challenging. The young couple married on May 5 and while planning for a wedding, they also planned the trip to Brazil as their honeymoon, "putting bits away" over the past year.
"The World Cup has always been a bucket list item for me," James said. "It's something that I've been planning to do and Brazil seemed like the perfect time to go."
The couple put in for three games, but were only selected for the U.S.-Ghana game on June 16 in Natal. They'll travel with five others and will spend 10 days in Brazil, time for soccer, but also time for an enjoyable honeymoon.
"The views of some of the places we're staying at, on the water and the beaches, look gorgeous," Kathryn said. "I think it will be a lot of fun just hanging out, enjoying the scenery, going on different adventures and exploring a new place together."
Takeaway from the trip of a lifetime
Taylorsville's Carlos Baquerizo travels to South America a few times per year to watch soccer matches, but said he knows none of them will compare to what he'll see in Brazil. Along with his uncle, he'll see three Ecuador matches as well as the Uruguay-England and Chile-Netherlands games.
"I've never been to Brazil, I've never been to a World Cup so I'm just excited for the atmosphere," Baquerizo said. "These games, you just feel it, it's different."
James Delorey, who's held RSL season tickets for three years, said he believes it will be unlike anything he has ever seen.
"I'm kind of a sappy guy, so I could see it bringing tears to my eyes," he said. "It's going to be an incredible experience, oh man."
Wheatley said he's looking forward to experiencing the world's game in person with people all over the world, to share a feeling that transcends borders and fanhood.
"At the end of the day, soccer fans are passionate no matter what team they're cheering for," Wheatley said. "They get excited, they get into the games and I just feel like it will be even more special being on the biggest level."
Spongberg said that it's not about souvenirs or trinkets, that the memories he'll bring home to South Jordan will be more than enough.
"It's that experience, the memories, those are the things that I can take home," he said. "If we can attach those to any type of positive result for the U.S., that would just be great."