I get asked a lot of questions when I travel to watch football. Most of them are related to the fact that I am a woman. But many are also about the fact that I am American. And Americans, supposedly, do not love football.
Being obsessed with football has been a part of my identity since the 1998 World Cup. In the past, when I have felt strange in my own country because of my love for the sport, I have reminded myself that I would be considered very normal in other countries. Fortunately, more and more Americans are embracing global football now: choosing favorite club teams and traveling to watch matches in the United States and abroad.
I watched my first match outside of the United States at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City in 2017, when the United States and Mexican men’s national teams tied 1-1 in a World Cup qualifier. At the time, I thought that I would never top that experience – when would I ever find another group of friends crazy enough to do something like that?
The American work schedule does not allow for much holiday time. And, because we move so far away from home while we are at university or after we have graduated, most of us spend the limited holiday time that we do have traveling back across the country to see our families. My job as a geologist allowed me to work a rotational schedule, which freed up weeks at a time during which I did not have to work.
My first games in Europe
I only made it to my first games in Europe because I had signed up to run the 2017 Berlin marathon for charity. Had I not done that, who knows where I would be now? I planned my first groundhopping trip to start in England and end in Germany, where I would run my race in Berlin. I made a deal with a friend who was a Fulham fan – if he came to Germany and went to Bundesliga games with me, I would go to London with him. I do not have a favorite club team, but wanted to see as many American players as possible.
I love to plan logistics and schedules, so when the fixture lists were released I printed out a blank calendar for September and started penciling in the possibilities, getting a rush from the excitement of realizing what stadiums we might be visiting. Kickoff dates and times started to be finalized over the summer. The Champions League and Europa League draws happened at the end of August. On that trip, we saw five games in eight days in London, then flew to Germany and saw three more matches in five days.
It was not a big leap for me to decide to go to Russia in 2018, even though the United States had not qualified. This time, I did not have any friends who were crazy enough to travel with me, so I planned my travel to four-game in Russia alone. As the tournament neared and I shared my plans with friends, I realized that I knew someone going to three of the same games. Football can make the world seem so small.
I returned to England and Germany in the fall of 2018 to watch more of my American players at their club teams. I blew off my family for the holidays and flew to London on Christmas day, rushing to make the 12:30 p.m. kickoff at Craven Cottage on Boxing Day, and returning to the United States after the New Year’s Day game at Emirates Stadium, having seen five games in seven days.
Watch as much football as possible
When I found myself with no job and nowhere to live in April of 2019, there was only one thing I wanted to do: watch as much football as possible. I had seen so many games already, and yet I had barely scratched the surface. I started in Spain, determined to see Lionel Messi play. After that, I was off to Milan and the San Siro. I went to Budapest for the women’s Champions League Final, then to Stade Velodrome in Marseille to see the final weekend of Ligue 1. I went to the group stage of the Women’s World Cup, cheering the United States on in their first two matches but making sure I filled in their days off with other matches.
I spent two months couch-surfing in the United States, going to MLS and NWSL games and planning two more months of groundhopping abroad, one last chance to scratch the itch before I would have to find an apartment and a job and start being a real adult again. I had a list of stadiums in England which I still needed to visit, so I lined that up for September.
“Just one more trip,” I told myself, “and I’ll be ready to stop.”
I have dreamed of going to La Bombonera since around 2007 when I first got Bein Sports and saw footage from the Argentine Primera Division and Copa Libertadores. I had watched hundreds of football matches on television by then, but something about this was different. Actually getting there was a far off dream, something I thought I would only ever accomplish if I became rich and found someone else to travel with who spoke Spanish and loved football as much as I did.
In graduate school, a friend went to Buenos Aires for research. Before he left, I had showed him the Boca Juniors team roster and tried to explain how big of a deal football was in Argentina. He brought me back a postcard with a picture of the crowd at La Bombonera on the front. On the back, he had written, “This card just screams Jess Malone.” I kept it stashed away with other personal mementos as I reminder that I had educated someone about that place, hoping, wishing that I would get there some day.
In July, I started letting myself think about getting to South America. If I did not do this now, when I had the time, the money saved, and the confidence, would I ever get there? But I knew that, even though I had gone to countless games by myself, attending games alone in South America, without speaking Spanish or Portuguese, would be too stressful for me.
So I researched, looking for guides or some way to go to games with other people so that I would not be alone. And that’s when I found Homefans. They were organizing a trip to Buenos Aires in October which would include a game at Estadio Alberto J. Armando. I forced myself to spend a week thinking it over and ran the idea past some close friends to confirm that I was not completely crazy. They were supportive, knowing that they could not stop me and that I would not do something if I had not thought about it carefully. I put down my deposit for the Ultimate Argentina Trip. I was going to La Bombonera!
I decided to stop in Brazil on my way to Argentina since the Brazilian Serie A would be playing during the FIFA International break. I left Newcastle, England in early October having checked all of my English stadiums off of my list, and landed in Rio de Janeiro. I had contacted Homefans to ask if they could provide advice about how to get tickets to matches in Brazil, and they responded that they had a local guide who could accompany me to the matches and would supply the tickets. Easy sell. For a change, I would not have to worry about logistics, transportation, or ticket purchases.
I went to the Marcanã twice, to see both Flamengo and Fluminense, and to a Vasco da Game match. My guide and his friends took the time to teach me the deep history of their clubs and players, the things you may only learn by coming to Brazil and going to the games. I left Rio wanting more, sad that I had only been to three games and visited one city.
In Buenos Aires, my first match was Boca Juniors vs Racing Club. La Bombonera was everything I had expected and more. La Doce were in full voice, both to urge their team on and let them know that their performance in the 1-0 loss was not good enough. Games at Independiente and Huaracán followed on the weekend. Huracán’s celebration of their second goal against arch-rivals San Lorenzo, with both the players and the fans climbing the wire fence surrounding the pitch, is my favorite I have ever seen in person.
The final match of my six-month break from work and my global groundhopping tour was the second leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final between Boca Juniors and River Plate. In my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined that I would be at La Bombonera for a Superclásico. Returning to the stadium for the second time, for the final game before I faced reality back in the United States, I soaked it all in as Boca won 1-0 but lost the tie on aggregate.
It’s not always easy being an American, or a woman, in the global football world – but I won’t let that stop me from doing what I love. And for the countries or games where I feel like I need extra support, I know that I can trust Homefans for everything I need!
Groundhopper App: @maloneje
This is a guest blog written by our traveler Jessica Malone. Have you traveled with us and would you also like to write a blog about your experience? Please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org