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Meet the Americans traveling to Russia, even if the USMNT isn't

Kyla and Gina Graber (Courtesy Photo)

American fans in 2018 will once again represent the largest contingent of foreign ticket-buyers at the World Cup — hardly a given, considering the U.S. men failed to qualify.

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Americans have come around to the idea of venturing to Russia for the 2018 edition of the World Cup — even if the United States men’s national team won’t be there.

In the first 24 hours of FIFA’s ticket window opening last December, nearly 165,000 tickets were allocated, with more than half of those going to Russian fans. U.S. fans accounted for just 5,780 tickets, putting them behind Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico in the ranks of first-day buyers.

That has since changed, and while the number of Americans headed to Russia for the World Cup likely won’t match the approximately 200,000 tickets sold to Brazil-bound Americans four years ago, they’ll still make up the largest contingent of visitors to this World Cup. When the final phase of sales opened in April, nearly 1.7 million tickets were sold, with Americans claiming more than 80,000.

For a number of American soccer fans, the allure of the quadrennial tournament is simply too great to resist, even if the potential exists for one on home soil in 2026.

Brock Kwiatkowsky, 52, from Marietta, Georgia, has an impressive string of World Cup attendances going — like the U.S. men’s national team, he’s been to every World Cup since the 1990 edition in Italy. Unlike his beloved team, though, he’ll keep his string going in 2018, accompanied by his wife, Denise, and their two college-age children — even if just for one match.

“We had all kinds of plans to travel, and then it all came crashing down,” he says of the U.S.’ surprise absence from the tournament. “We were bitterly disappointed, and we weren’t even going to go. But then I took a flyer, after looking at the matches in St. Petersburg, and saw on June 15, there was a match between Iran and Morocco.” They correctly figured they could get tickets for that match through FIFA’s ticket lottery system, and upon winning them, booked their flights for Russia.

Denise fondly recalls the adventure Brazil brought in 2014, which included catching a 3 a.m. flight to the Amazon jungle outpost of Manaus for the U.S.-Portugal match, which she remembers as “the tie that felt like a loss.”

“We went to the Amazon and spent some time in a reserve,” she recalls. “We went fishing in the treetops, and we were catching piranhas, and then we went to a World Cup match where they had the first-ever water break!”

Kwiatkowsky family in Brazil (Courtesy Photo)

Like the Kwiatkowskys, 46-year-old Adam Karas of Boulder, Colorado — attending his first World Cup — is staying in St. Petersburg and catching what games he can there. “I visited the city twice in the late ‘90s, and I’m looking to go back and see how it’s changed,” he notes, adding that he’s friends with a local who will help him navigate the city.

Artem Ermishin, a 20-year-old student at the University of Texas at Dallas and permanent U.S. resident, is traveling to his first World Cup. This World Cup has special significance to him, as he was born in Russia, and he’ll be volunteering for the tournament’s Information Technology team as well as attending a slate of six matches.

“Free transportation between the cities for games is possible with an official game ticket,” he notes. “It sure makes things easier when planning to attend games in different cities from Moscow, where I’ll be based.”  

Though he wasn’t able to secure tickets for any of Russia’s group matches, noting high demand, he’s banking on the hosts winning their group, as he has tickets for the Round of 16 match in Sochi where the Group A winner slots into.

More than just USMNT fans

Artem Ermishin at the Confederations Cup (Courtesy Photo)

For American fans with dual affiliations, the U.S.’ exit frees them up to root for their “other” teams.

Alex Alanya, a 27-year-old, Peruvian-born real estate developer based in New Haven, Connecticut, was determined to attend this World Cup once his home country qualified. “After 36 years, we are back on the big stage!” he exclaimed, adding, “I decided less than two months ago to make the trip to the World Cup only because I couldn't pass on this one-time opportunity.” He secured group-match tickets through the lottery (though, to his disappointment, not for Peru-France), and found an Airbnb rental on the outskirts of Moscow after striking out on single-bed hotel and hostel options.

Juancarlos Aponte, a 30-year-old Sammers SC supporters’ group member from New York City, is traveling with his dad to root for Colombia. While initially hesitant to attend due to “some of the issues surrounding Russia in the news,” he changed his mind — in part, knowing he’s averse to the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. “I held out applying for tickets until after the final day of qualification, switching my ticket application to Colombia instead of the U.S.”

One fellow Colombian-American fan, Felipe Ardila, 36, from Austin, Texas, is making the entirety of the World Cup part of a two-month journey starting with the Champions League final on May 26 in Kiev. “I had a ticket to the match which I obtained through the lottery,” he explains, “but sold it after Barcelona crashed out to Roma in the quarterfinals.” He’s now trying to secure a ticket, mainly to see Liverpool and Egypt star forward Mohamed Salah in person.

Sisters Kyla and Gina Graber from Austin, 35 and 34, respectively, traveled to the 2010 World Cup with Ardila, and also made trips to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. They were determined to go to Russia regardless of results.

“The atmosphere at the World Cup is special, and I know if I was at home watching the games, I would be envious that I was not there,” Kyla said. With her beloved U.S. team on the sidelines, she has a list of primarily European teams she’ll root for, though she’ll give some Concacaf love to Costa Rica when she sees them play Brazil in their St. Petersburg group match.

Kyla and Gina Graber (Courtesy Photo)

Of course, there are plenty of El Tri fans in the United States, too. Alfonso Martinez, 35, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and now lives in the Phoenix metro area. He is a captain in the Phoenix Battalion of Pancho Villa’s Army, the supporters’ group for Mexico fans in the U.S. He and his brother secured hospitality tickets to ensure they could rendezvous with an expected 200 members of Pancho Villa’s Army for Mexico’s second and third matches in the group stage. They plan to stay in Russia for two weeks, hoping to follow Mexico deep into the knockout rounds.

“We’re hoping for that miracle year,” he says with unapologetic optimism. “If they make the finals, it’s a dream come true, but I think the semifinals is not too much of a stretch.”

Fans like the Kwiatkowsky family don’t extend Concacaf rivals good wishes and don’t have a ready list of teams to back like the Graber sisters. They are still determining who to back for the games they’ll end up attending.

“Right now, we are totally rooting for Morocco,” Brock says of the match they’ll be attending. “But if they get the bid for 2026,” he laughs, “we’re going to switch to Iran.”

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