Like many great stories, this story begins with wine. Or more accurately, this story is possible because of the wine offered to Pat Ryan by a French chef in 1998.
The French chef is Ryan’s neighbor. He called to invite Ryan to watch the World Cup. For the first 29 years of his life, Ryan made fun of soccer players.
“I don’t want to watch a bunch of actors diving all over the ground,” Ryan joked to his neighbor. “But I’ll come over and drink your wine with you.”
So Ryan went, drinking the wine and digesting the game as he watched. By the time the French were hoisting the FIFA World Cup Trophy, Ryan was addicted to soccer.
When the World Cup rolled around again in 2002, Ryan found himself waking up at 3 a.m. to watch the United States compete in South Korea and Japan. In 2006, Ryan went to Germany for his first World Cup and he returned in 2010 for the event in South Africa.
And now, Ryan is among 39 people traveling together from Kansas City to Brazil for the World Cup, which starts Thursday.
“I’ve morphed from a hater to a lover,” Ryan says.
Ryan’s World Cup travel group crowds around a bench on an outside porch encased by rustic stucco walls and stringed lights at Martin City Brewing Company. It’s Friday, only one week before some of them fly to Rio de Janeiro. They are gathering to receive their game tickets, group jerseys, and, in some cases, to meet each other for the first time.
Next to Ryan sets his backpack with ‘Ryan Adventures’ stitched on the outside. Ryan pulls a dark green vuvuzela from inside.
“World Cup, baby!” Ryan yells. “We’re going to Brazil!”
His group laughs and cheers. Other tables turn and look, some clap. Once they return to their conversation about their upcoming trip’s logistics, a waiter places a platter on the bench in between Bill Kennaley, Mark and Angie Koetting and Chris Schoenster.
“What is that?” Kennaley asks, pointing toward what looks from the outside to be a meatball but isn’t.
“I have no idea,” Schoenster shrugs, smiles and pops it in his mouth.
Adventure is a right of passage in this group, which made the decision to pay $100 stipends every month over the last three years an easy one. Overall, each member has paid around $3,600 to cover travel and hospitality.
At the opposite end of the bench are Dieter Illig and A.J. Kahn. Illig is a German native with a peppered beard and a smile that could make anyone flying eight hours with him to Brazil feel like they’re watching the games from his couch.
Kahn, a 34-year old sports management student at Kansas, heard of this trip three years ago from Illig, who attended the World Cup in his home country in 2006.
This will be Kahn’s first World Cup, as it will be for the majority of his group. When Mark Koetting went to throw away the most recent Sports Illustrated, Angie Koetting stopped him. She wanted to study up.
Regardless of soccer knowledge, they all know why they’re going to Brazil.
“Trip of a lifetime,” Mark and Angie Koetting say in unison and Kennaley echoes them.
“Trip of a lifetime,” Schoenster says without blinking.
“I’ve always wanted to do it, and what better place to do it than Brazil?” Kahn asks, rhetorically.
“Brazil was a no-brainer,” Illig says. “Brazil is a soccer country, crazy, and it’s Brazil. You know? Where else are we gonna go? It’s not going to come around again in my lifetime, probably.”
“Why not?” Jeremy Seitzinger asks in an undertone. “That’s the question.”
On the days in between the games he plans to attend, Ryan will attend the fan fests set up on beaches — with giant screens televising the other matches — or explore the town and culture outside of soccer.
“The best part is interacting with all the other cultures,” Ryan says. “If you’re a travel and a culture and a sports fan, it’s the perfect mix of all three.”
They do hope to run into a few familiar faces. Mark Kapfer and more than 400 other members of the American Outlaws, the U.S. national team’s fan club, are headed to Brazil. Of the 400-plus in the group, Kapfer and about 10 others are from the Kansas City chapter.
Kapfer’s love for soccer has been cultivating since he began playing when he was younger. He grew up in Topeka and remembers attending Wizards’ games, but he didn’t consider himself a dedicated fan until 2006 when he graduated college and moved back to Kansas City.
He feels now is the time to attend his first World Cup.
“I’m 31,” Kapfer laughs. “I wanted to see a World Cup sometime. … It’s just being in Brazil, the timing being right, I had to pull the trigger.”
It will cost Kapfer and each member of the group around $5,500, including travel, buses to games, the hotel and game tickets, which range from $90 to $170 a piece.
There are small concerns for Kapfer and the Koettlings, though. Anything else is chalked up to nerves related to anticipation and exhilaration.
“There’s a lot of stuff going down in the bigger cities, like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, more organized protests and everything,” Kapfer says. “A little, semi-concerned about how they will receive people coming there, but I don’t think they’ll be too upset that we’re spending money locally. I think more of the animosity is towards FIFA and their government’s use of money.”
For Mark and Angie Koetting, the concern is rooted more personally. They have three children, a 12-year old and 10-year old twins.
“I’ll be away from the little ones for two weeks,” Angie Koetting says.
Any concerns or ill-will Ryan once held toward soccer or the World Cup dissipated in his neighbor’s home 16 years ago.
“I don’t have any concerns other than just, I’ve built up my hopes for four years,” Ryan says. “I hope Rio is the best city to experience a World Cup atmosphere on the globe. That’s what I hope.”