They’re easy to pick out, on United States game days: swarms of Americans, hauling their rolling suitcases and camping backpacks, staring up at departure boards and comparing tickets. Dotted throughout, familiar jerseys in red, white, and blue, some with three stars, some with two. They’re on their way to Reims, to Le Havre, to Paris. They’re waving the stars and stripes from the stands, temporarily turning the stadium into home turf. In a sense, the United States women’s national team hasn’t played a single away game since they began their 2019 World Cup campaign.
American fans tend to travel well for the national teams, and France has been no exception. Every train from Paris out to the cities the United States has played in has been so packed with Americans that you might be forgiven for thinking you’re back in the States, but for the speed and efficiency of the train. They’ve come from all over, alone or with friends or with family, flying in from California to Tennessee, from Texas to Michigan. Some are world travelers. Others have never been to Europe before. But when the World Cup was awarded to France, they all knew they had to go.
But why? Of course, France is a lovely destination lure, and plenty of fans said they deliberately rolled the World Cup into a summer vacation package as well. But they weren’t planning European vacations until the World Cup came along. The chance to be part of the capital-T Tournament was the trigger instigating a wave of ticket purchases, flight schedules, and hotel bookings.
Why are human brains wired to seek out emotional highs and lows, to crave excitement and fellowship? Why do fans huddle together in the stands in abominable weather for the love of something that has no regard for their feelings, that sometimes seems as susceptible to the whims of an uncaring universe as our own random lives? The Americans I spoke to were almost uniformly cheerful about flinging themselves into a country where they don’t speak the language and don’t know the systems — like my own travel group, who got stuck on the turnstiles exiting the Metro the first time because we didn’t realize our tickets wouldn’t let us exit in that zone. But most US supporters haven’t found it a problem at all.
Katherine Bickford, a strength training coach who traveled from Oakland, says an earnest attempt at a few French phrases enables her to find a Parisian happy to help. Karimah Browne, a teacher from Houston, says she underestimated how difficult it would be to get around without French, but that even while staying in a part of Paris with fewer tourists and therefore fewer English speakers, she found the people kind and helpful. The American fans uniformly seem in high spirits as they Google translate their way through the country. Perhaps it’s easy to stay chipper when your team is racking up record numbers of goals through the group stage, but you get the sense that even in the event of a loss, there would be that air of bonhomie that comes from being in this thing together.
Some of these fans have been watching the USWNT for a few years, others their whole lives. But the intensity of the devotion is the same, uniting them all here in France, an ocean away from home. Many fans I spoke to described an instant attachment to the USWNT, a sharp realization of compatibility that served as a point of no return. Elise Stawarz, a digital marketer who traveled from Nashville, went to a USWNT game in 2016 at the invitation of friends. At the time it seemed like good value for money at $20 a ticket, and as Stawarz puts it, “a good excuse to day drink.” She was hooked after 90 minutes and has been a fan ever since.
What is it about sports — about anything — that can create such an instant moment of sympatico? Maybe it says as much about the person as it does about the sport. For some fans, it’s a bolt out of the blue. For others, it’s a slow and steady affection over time, turning to love somewhere along the way.
Bickford says she was excited for the 99ers, stayed an intermittent fan for the next couple of World Cups and Olympics, then finally took the plunge about three years ago. Her wife suggested going to France for a couple of weeks and they’ve been hopping around the country, watching not just the USWNT, but other international players they came to know and like from NWSL.
Browne started following the USWNT during the 2011 World Cup and she “ended up becoming obsessed with all things women’s soccer.” She wanted to go to Canada in 2015, but as a fresh college graduate, it wasn’t feasible at the time. She resolved she would go in 2019 and spent a week in France during the group stage.
Jenna Choquette, an engineer who traveled from Ventura, California, attended a group game during the 1999 World Cup when she was around 11 and hasn’t stopped watching since.
There is a sense of sharing among all these fans, not just of a common experience, but of a pooled experiential history. Maybe you weren’t at the same game, but you remember that play, that miss, that goal. Or you weren’t a fan yet, but someone at a nearby table was there, and is only too happy to pass down their knowledge. It’s almost a kind of informal oral tradition, passing around stories until there’s a collective consciousness around them, and around the team.
As for the tournament itself, there have been logistical ups and downs. Stawarz hasn’t been able to buy merchandise at stadiums without considerable effort, waiting in line for 40 minutes just to buy a shirt. Choquette was trapped in a couple of bottlenecks at stadiums due to insufficient female security guards available for pat-downs, and also encountered extremely long lines for merchandise. Steph Bauchet, a student from Houghton, Michigan, says security in Nice was disorganized and created long wait times to enter the stadium, and that merchandise options were both disappointingly limited and in scarce supply, with some shirt sizes nearly sold out just 30 minutes after the gates opened. And Bill Nottingham, who traveled with his wife and two daughters from Chapel Hill, was one of the unlucky fans who got caught up in the ticketing mess. His family’s tickets for USA vs. Chile were scattered across several rows and they were left to sort things out themselves by going to the box office on game day.
But every American I asked about their experiences in France came down on the side of positivity. Long lines, paltry fan souvenirs on offer, tickets gone wrong — as long as they actually got to see games, none of them seemed to mind the surrounding noise.
“The community’s just so great,” says Hallie Craddock, who traveled from New Jersey for the first week of the tournament. She was there to watch as many teams as possible in the short time she was in France. Some of the teams she liked because they had internationals in NWSL, some just because it’s easier now to follow teams outside of the US. When asked if she could sum up the main thing she wanted to get out of this tournament, she said, “Connect with more women’s soccer fans from different parts of the world and get to see some really awesome football.”