USNAST: The World Cup Life, Days 1-2 (October 4-5)
For the US National Arena Soccer Team, set to compete in the 2017 WMF World Cup, half the fun and adventure was just getting here.
But before we went anywhere we lost two members of our delegation. Defender Stephen Basso could not get permission from the Harrisburg Heat, his MASL team, to participate in the tournament and Meir Cohen regretfully had to stay home in Las Vegas following the tragic shooting rampage in Las Vegas.
The team assembled in Chicago on October 4, arriving from various locations. The California players and staff flew over on the red eye flight. I had a 2am wake-up call in Baltimore for a 5:30am flight, but missed that flight (thanks Super Shuttle!), so I had to hang around BWI for three hours for the next flight out and missed the ride to the training facility in Chicago. I finally arrived in Chicago at 11:00am and, while the players were bonding and training, I had several hours to wander up and down the O’Hare Airport concourses.
Our 5:55pm flight to Paris was delayed til 7:30pm because the inbound plane was late to arrive but once it got there they did a quick change over and got us out of Chicago. The flight to our connection in Paris was seven hours and 11 minutes or 14 hours and 11 minutes including the seven hour time difference from Central Time to Central European Time.
In Paris we didn’t have a lot of time to hang out. We had to get our bags and check in for our flight to Tunisia. Customs in France was as simple as handing someone our passports and getting a stamp. The TSA, however, had a pretty good time rifling through my bag at BWI apparently, leaving their note that they had examined its contents. They even opened one of my bottles of vitamins and neglected to replace the lid (thanks TSA!).
While getting into France was quick, there was a very long line to get another stamp to leave France. We nearly left a player behind, when he missed the train to the other terminal, but we’re all keeping tabs on each other and he was quickly reunited with the herd.
I love macarons so I did the only touristy thing we had time for and bought a couple for a snack. At our gate we ran into former Brazilian international fullback Marcelo Goncalves, who played for Brazil in the 1998 World Cup. As it turns out he was headed to Tunisia for the WMF World Cup as well, to scout players, and he is a business associate of Mario Scicluna, who proudly pointed him out to the rest of us.
On the plane to Tunis, Tunisia, we made friends with a French flight attendant who was very interested in our trip. He was so taken with us he actually sat down with us for about 15 minutes on the plane and looked at our photos and asked when our games were, promised to watch us online, and hooked us up with some yummy Gavottes. He was anxious to meet our new compadre Marcelo Goncalves, who was a few rows in front of us, even though he humorously signaled with his hands and mouthed the words, “Three, zero,” the score by which France defeated Brazil in 1998. When the flight was over he announced our presence and that we were bound for the WMF World Cup over the PA and ended with a,”Go USA!” even though France is actually competing in the event as well.
When we disembarked in Tunis, we hung in the back so all of our traveling party could catch up, and in that short time all of the other passengers went through customs and it appeared that the entire airport was deserted. It was an eerie and uneasy feeling, especially when visiting a country that was unfamiliar to all of us. We presented our passports again and quickly got another stamp, and then had to walk through a metal detector. Every one of us set it off, but they waved us through. When we walked through the exit doors we entered baggage claim area and suddenly the airport came alive with passengers and shops.
We got there around 3:30 but had a long delay, partly because Mario was helping Marcelo with lost luggage. We posed for pictures in the meantime. We finally all got on our bus and departed for the host city, Nabeul, around 5:00pm. Tunis is a large, fairly modern city of endless white buildings. While our tournament brochure had a picture of camel rides in the barren, sandy, desert, Tunis is actually a verdant city teeming with palm trees.
The greenery continued as we drove through farmland and small mountains to Nabeul. On the entire drive there were very few recognizable names. Most of the signs are in both Arabic and French, the dominant languages in the region. Other than a L’Oreal building and a couple Shell has stations, there were few familiar sights for American travelers. One prevalent gas station is OiLibya (which I like to pronounce as Oi! Libya), but there aren’t many businesses that look like franchises.
The roads were flooded in some places due to excess rains the area sustained the past few days, but the forecast looks pretty clear for the next several days.
When we got to the hotel, there was security in place at the entrance and at the front door. It was like we walked into a club. There was music blasting, people dancing, media everywhere. With 24 teams to check in, arriving at different times, and everyone taking pictures it was chaotic, but in a good way.
The national associations paid for the flights and a tournament package that included the hotel, land transportation, and three meals a day. The Khayam Garden Hotel is a resort with two large swimming pools and water slides and it backs up to the beach and the Mediterranean Sea. As one player said, “This is paradise.”
The food at the hotel is served buffet style and the selection caters to its international audience, from local dishes like Tajine (basically like a frittata or quiche) and kebabs to plain old pizza and french fries. Though Tunisia is a predominantly Muslim country they serve alcohol in the hotel and most of the women dress in modern, secular clothes.
At night, me, Mario and our new friend Fethi, a local volunteer, walked a few blocks for a bottled water run for the players. The water was heavy so we took a taxi back to the hotel and the driver was smoking the whole way.
Back in the room, there is plenty of French TV and some Arabic channels. There are a couple English European news channels, and a couple channels that have American movies dubbed into French, but sometimes you can find an American movie in English that only has Arabic subtitles. There was even a channel that had the original Star Wars movie on dubbed in German. You haven’t seen Star Wars until you’ve seen it in German.
For some of us it was a 40 hour journey, but everyone was feeling good and in high spirits.