Having a chance to attend a World Cup is the dream of every soccer fan in the world, and I have been lucky enough to have attended the past three World Cups. Each of them has been a unique and unforgettable experience, but as in the case with most things, it is always tough to top your first.
Though I was in the United States for the 1994 World Cup, the first World Cup I was actively involved with was the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. As a young journalist taking his first extended international trip, that World Cup was always going to be an eye-opening experience, and it was on so many levels.
I still remember watching the draw for the 2002 World Cup and feeling disappointed when the United States was drawn to play in South Korea instead of Japan. I know much more about Japan than South Korea, and thought I would be missing out on a great time.
Little did I know that South Korea would offer one of the best World Cup experience I ever enjoyed. The South Korean people were amazing, and the fans that came in from around the world made it a special five weeks.
That tournament started off in style, with underdog Senegal beating France in the opener. The French fan section stayed after the final whistle and applaud the Senegalese team as they came off the pitch. That moment, as well as the impressive opening ceremonies, had me very excited for what was yet to come.
That World Cup saw the United States exceed expectations, and the fun began in the U.S. team’s first match, against Portugal. I can remember being in the press area and seeing smug Portuguese reporters wearing Portugal scarves and talking about what a blowout the match would be. Needless to say, when the U.S. jumped out to a 3-0 lead on their way to a 3-2 victory, the Portuguese media were just a bit surprised.
Then you had the USA-South Korea match, which was one of the most breathtaking World Cup experiences I can remember. An 80,000-seat stadium filled almost entirely with South Korean fans cheered in unison, and just before the match they unveiled the largest flag I have ever seen in my life, sending chills down the spines of those of us lucky enough to be there.
The United States went on to tie that match, and reached the quarterfinals that year (beating arch-rival Mexico in the Round of 16 in a win for the ages). Once the U.S. was eliminated, I headed to Japan for the semifinals and final, and one last unforgettable experience.
The Brazil-Germany World Cup final in 2002 was my first final, and watching Brazilian star Ronaldo put on a show was something else. The evening was made even more special when I had a chance to ask Ronaldo a question in the post-game press conference and Ronaldo shed tears as he discussed what it meant for him to win the World Cup.
The 2006 World Cup in Germany was amazing, and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa exceeded all my expectations, but the best World Cup experience I have ever had continues to be that first one in Asia a dozen years ago.