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July 12, 2014

A World Cup of experience

Local couple journeyed to Brazil, cheered U.S. team

The night before the U.S. men’s national soccer team started its World Cup campaign in Brazil, a Chatsworth resident prepared for a life-changing event and a once-in-a-lifetime two weeks.

Fred Gould proposed June 15 to his girlfriend, Kristen Johnsey, in Natal, Brazil. It was there that just one day later the couple celebrated with thousands of road warriors from the United States as their team started its group stage exploits in style by beating Ghana 2-1 with a late goal.

“She didn’t know,” Fred said of his proposal, “but I had it planned the whole time.”

No doubt, this was a trip the couple will never forget.

Fred, who graduated from Murray County High School in 2002, is vice president of the Chattanooga chapter of the American Outlaws, an organized group of U.S. men’s soccer supporters who gather en masse to watch games. He and his younger brother, Andrew, started the 82nd chapter in May 2013, around four years after the group unofficially began in an obsolete bar in Lincoln, Neb. After the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, in which the Americans made a dramatic run to the knockout stage of the tournament, the Gould brothers began planning a trip for June 2014.

“Every week I was dropping money into this bank account to build it up,” said Fred, a lifelong soccer fan who played at Murray County High School and during his two years at Gordon College in Barnesville before transferring to the University of Georgia.

The only problem was that Andrew became engaged during planning and got married a few weeks before the World Cup. Fred had met Kristen in 2011, and once the spot for a travel partner opened, she pitched joining her soon-to-be fiancé. Once the World Cup teams were drawn into groups in December, the couple mapped out their plans to be there for the United States’ three group stage matches June 13-28.

It wasn’t that they believed the Americans would be eliminated early — Fred correctly predicted the Americans’ advancement from the media-labeled “Group of Death — but they needed to return for work. Fred is a designer in the landscape architecture division of Northwest Georgia Paving in Calhoun. Kristen, a Chattanooga resident, works for the Hamilton County (Tenn.) government.

“It’s not just that he had full confidence they’d make it through the group stage,” Kristen said of Fred, “but he also believed they’d go all the way.”

In all, the trip cost less than $7,000, including game tickets — none of which eclipsed $200 apiece — plus hotels and tourist attractions.

“The actual hotels and flights and everything was less than five grand, believe it or not,” said Fred, who attended a World Cup match at age 10 in 1994, the year the United States hosted. “Once you got there, everything was around 47 cents on the dollar. ... You could go down there and get carried away, but we packed light, so we didn’t have much stuff to buy and bring back.”

Kristen wasn’t a big soccer fan before meeting Fred — the match against Ghana was her first live soccer game. Before that match, the pair met up with the national American Outlaws travel group for a pre-match party and then participated in the “march” from the party site to the stadium.

“The march was surreal because we were at the front of the line,” Kristen recalled, “and you turn around and see waves and waves of people coming from two blocks away.”

They partied with U.S. fans outside a gas station June 22 in Manaus before the Portugal match and then made the trek — minus the march — to the stadium. For the Germany match, June 26 in Recife, the area flooded and made it impossible to partake in any pre-match festivities. The pair still made it to the arena, although not without seeing some dire needs of Brazil.

“That was the main time we noticed the lack of infrastructure,” Kristen said, noting a lack of parking at the stadium. “We weren’t in any of the resort cities. We were more in neighborhoods than the resort side. So you get a better feel for daily Brazilian life and you sympathize with them for the government spending so much money on this.”

The pair noticed a lack of — or need for better — plumbing, hot water, central air and heating and even sidewalks. They don’t recall seeing any schools, saw one hospital, didn’t see a police presence but noticed a large military presence.

Brazil was temporarily filled with foreigners for the event, and Fred and Kristen said the natives especially liked the Americans’ style of fandom.

“They loved the American fans; they did not like the American team,” Fred said. “They cheered against us every game.”

Why?

“I asked that question,” Fred said. “I was riding on the bus to the game against Germany and was next to a Brazilian wearing a Germany jersey and going to cheer for Germany. I asked him, ‘Why would you do that?’ He told me the Brazilians don’t want to see the Americans become good — they want to see us continue to fail — because, and these were his words, they’re afraid if we as a nation decide we want to get good at soccer and latch onto it, the rest of the world won’t stand a chance.

“He compared it to the Olympics. He said we win it every single time. ... His words were, ‘Imagine if a LeBron James or Calvin Johnson decided to play soccer.’”

U.S. fans had plenty to celebrate in Brazil despite not going further than four years ago. One highlight was the end of the Ghana match, which included a second-half tying goal from the Americans’ opponents. Youngster John Brooks entered late with the score tied 1-1 and headed in the 87th-minute goal to put the Americans ahead for good.

“Even though Ghana controlled the pace, it never felt dangerous until they scored,” Fred said. “... You can ask her, I was kind of like, ‘Oh no, I can’t believe this happened.’ I knew going in we had to beat Ghana. A tie wouldn’t be good enough (to advance to the knockout stage).

“When he put in Brooks, I thought to myself, ‘What is he doing?’ ... When he headed that ball in, it was a blur.”

Said Kristen, “It was like a volcano erupted (among the U.S. fans).”

Said Fred, “I grabbed her, picked her up and shook her around. I grabbed the guy next to me. We’re hugging and shaking each other and had no idea who he was.”

Despite the sport’s growing popularity — according to espn.com, the USA-Portugal match was the most-viewed soccer contest in America and eclipsed the NBA Finals viewership average — “it’s a different world” in Brazil, Fred said.

“There’s nothing in this country that compares to how they are about soccer,” he said. “The Super Bowl doesn’t hold a candle to what those people do on game day. Everything shuts down. It’s the most incredible thing. I’ve never seen a country like that shut down for a sports event.

“I know people will read this and not fully comprehend or say there’s no way, but seriously, it was everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you went or who was playing, games were on TV.”

Once they returned home — and watched Belgium defeat the United States 2-1 on July 1 to knock out the Americans — friends wanted a rundown of the experience. Members of the Chattanooga chapter of the American Outlaws watch U.S. matches of all sorts at Jefferson’s Restaurant.

“Despite not getting to go to the big cities, it definitely was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Kristen said. “I say that because I went down there not knowing what to expect. It was incredible.”

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