THE TOUGHEST TICKET IN WORLD CUP (QUALIFYING) HISTORY

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The 2014 World Cup is upon us! For the American soccer fan, that means a momentary every-four-years respite from the wall-to-wall coverage devoted to the NFL, MLB, NBA and, to a lesser extent, the NHL. Even those relatively uninitiated to the world’s game at least tune in to see how the USA will perform.

Of course, for someone so infatuated with geography (and the geopolitics of FIFA – football’s governing body), I got hooked on this World Cup way before a majority of my fellow sports fans in this country.

The view from my hotel room in "icy" Iceland.

The view from my hotel room in “icy” Iceland.

One team I zeroed in on was Iceland. Yes, Iceland. That little island in the North Atlantic known for its stunning landscape than quality football. Yeah, well, they had apparently been quietly building a bit of a football factory over there, turning heads as a former minnow seeking to crash the World Cup party and football’s biggest stage.

Hallgrimskirkja towers above the Reykjavik skyline

Hallgrimskirkja towers above the Reykjavik skyline

European qualification is a gauntlet of sorts. While the continent sends the most nations (13) to the World Cup finals, they also have the most quality teams.

It gets dark early in Reykjavik in November - this is around 4 p.m.

It gets dark early in Reykjavik in November – this is around 4 p.m.

Iceland, in its footballing history, was certainly never regarded among those quality sides. Yet, with a population of 325,000 to draw from, they managed to get all the way to the doorstep of Brazil. After finishing second to Switzerland in group play, Iceland was rewarded with a home-and-home playoff series with Croatia, with the winner earning a World Cup berth.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand that got rave reviews from both Bill Clinton and Anthony Bourdain. A hot dog with fried onions and remoulade. Yes please!

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand that got rave reviews from both Bill Clinton and Anthony Bourdain. A hot dog with fried onions and remoulade. Yes please!

I had become so obsessed with the Iceland story by this point that I decided I’d just go and see it in person. Out of all the travel plans I’ve ever made, this might have been the most random and spontaneous. I had exactly one month (from Iceland clinching a playoff spot on October 15 to their first playoff game on November 15) to make the plans.

A contingent of Croatian fans before the match in Iceland. The one on the far left, Mario, suggested I contact the Croatian team directly for tickets.

A contingent of Croatian fans before the match in Iceland. The one on the far left, Mario, suggested I contact the Croatian team directly for tickets.

Knowing that the games would be scheduled on November 15 and 19 (but not knowing the specific date or who they’d even be playing) I booked a trip to arrive in Reykjavik the morning of the 15th and leave on the afternoon of the 20th. Either way, I’d be able to take in the home game as well as head to a sports pub to watch the road contest with the local fans. I’d be essentially sitting in on this little country’s most important sporting moment.

The Iceland merch stand before the game - I bought a scarf that commemorated the contest.

The Iceland merch stand before the game – I bought a scarf that commemorated the contest.

(What’s my personal attachment to Iceland? Actually, I don’t really have one. I like small, kinda out-of-the-way places, sure. I also enjoy underdog stories. I’m a child of Scandinavia, but my heritage points towards Norway and Denmark. If I recall correctly, Iceland was the first foreign country (outside of Canada, at least) that I ever set foot on, but it was moreso as a layover to and from Norway)

Player introductions in Iceland

Player introductions in Iceland

So anyway, I booked the trip on Icelandair for some absurdly low rate and waited and watched as Iceland and Croatia were paired up. I assumed I’d have to hassle a bit for tickets, but didn’t expect it to be much more than logging on to some European or Icelandic version of Stubhub and buying my way in.

Boy, I was wrong. So wrong.

Iceland fans holding up cards to form the Icelandic flag.

Iceland fans holding up cards to form the Icelandic flag.

Searching for a freelance assignment (read: a writing assignment that would actually pay), I decided first to contact the Iceland football federation’s (KSI) media relations team. I was quickly told that with demand being so high and the lack of space at the Laugardalsvöllur stadium (which holds a hair shy of 10,000 people) in Reykjavik, that this would be an impossible request to fulfill.

The game was a very hard fought 0-0 draw, which, at the time, was a good result for Iceland (and meant a non-scoreless draw in Croatia would move them through)

The game was a very hard fought 0-0 draw, which, at the time, was a good result for Iceland (and meant a non-scoreless draw in Croatia would move them through)

OK, well, then I might as well try to just purchase a ticket, which were slated to go on sale to the public online on October 29. After doing a little digging, I saw that it would be impossible to order a ticket without an Icelandic address. There was directions to contact one’s local football federation if they’d like to acquire a match ticket. So I e-mailed US Soccer the strange request. A couple days later I got a call. The US Soccer rep didn’t think he could do much for me (considering the U.S. nabbed one of Iceland’s best young players, Alabama-born Aron Johannsson) but he might try to pull some strings. I never did hear back.

So, I took to Twitter.

Fans waive the flag in support at the end of the match

Fans waive the flag in support at the end of the match

There’s nothing like using the power of social media to make random friends five time zones away. And I actually did meet some mighty fine Icelanders willing to help me. I had two stauch supporters that planned to purchase an extra ticket for me to join their party at the game. This was fail safe, well, unless I got tickets from both of them, then I’d be obligated to buy both.

Iceland keeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson came up huge in keeping Croatia off the board in the first game

Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa came up huge in keeping Iceland off the board during some early challenges in the first game

Except Iceland unexpectedly released the tickets to the public at 4 AM. No announcement was made, tickets were just made available and that was it. Early birds lucky enough to catch wind of the surprise release stockpiled on tickets to resell on the bland.is marketplace. Many supporters were left without a ticket, including both of my new friends.

Boarding my Croatian Airlines flight in Copenhagen

Boarding my Croatia Airlines flight in Copenhagen

I was quickly running out of ideas and becoming regretful in making these ambitious plans. Oh, but things just get more ambitious…

Ban Jelačić Square in Zagreb on the night after my arrival, one day before the deciding game

Ban Jelačić Square in Zagreb on the night after my arrival, one day before the deciding game

I contact the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik, hoping they might be able to persuade the KSI to cough up a ticket for an American blogger. No response. I then found out that Croatia had yet to put its 1,000 ticket allotment on sale to the public. My ticket search had new life! But wait, I had to have a Croatian passport to obtain the tickets…

There is a whole museum dedicated to former NBA player and Croatian legend, Dražen Petrović

There is a whole museum dedicated to former NBA player and Croatian legend, Dražen Petrović

I thought that was my last chance until I stumbled onto a football forum for Croatian ex-pats. A Croatian living in Toronto had just purchased three tickets for him and two friends from the Croatian website. I decided to send him a message to see if he could secure an extra ticket. Unfortunately, he was only allowed one transaction on the website. Had he known earlier, he would have certainly secured a ticket for me.

The train station (Glavni kolodvor) in Zagreb

The train station (Glavni kolodvor) in Zagreb

I was crushed, but he told me to try to e-mail the Croatians and that they may understand my situation. Heck, what was my situation? I was an overeager and curious American sports fan who booked a trip to Iceland thinking he could take in one of the strangest qualifying matchups in World Cup history in-person and yet was completely ill-prepared at how difficult it is to obtain tickets to games in which your national team does not participate. I was also still trying to obtain a “real” freelance assignment…

An official World Cup branded press pass.

An official World Cup branded press pass.

I did e-mail the Croatian team and was told that while they couldn’t obtain a ticket for the match in Reykjavik, they would gladly secure press passes for the second match in Zagreb. This, at the time, was meaningless to me, since my plans were essentially set in stone. Had I knew I had to get to Zagreb, I would have booked a different itinerary. I told them, kindly, that I would look over my travel plans and might take them up on the Zagreb offer and would let them know.

Iceland was able to keep the contest interesting for awhile, but never really challenged Croatia in Zagreb

Iceland was able to keep the contest interesting for awhile, but never really challenged Croatia in Zagreb

Meanwhile I still checked the Icelandic-based bland.is marketplace and tried to secure a ticket purchase from secondary sellers. In light of this news story, I’m actually glad nobody returned any of my messages on that website.

A cold, rainy and windy night kept some of the Croatian faithful at bay, but you wouldn't know it by their impassioned cheering.

A cold, rainy and windy night kept some of the Croatian faithful at bay, but you wouldn’t know it by their impassioned cheering.

Then, two days later and completely out of nowhere, the Croatian team contacted me letting me know that they had a ticket with my name on it and needed my passport number for validation. I was in!! Just like that good fortune graced me again when a major online sports site said they’d be interested in a feature story. My head was spinning!

Just moments before Croatia scored the opening goal

Just moments before Croatia scored the opening goal

Because I felt so indebted to the Croatians, I managed to book airfare to Zagreb via the miracle of the dirt cheap European aviation and accepted their offer of a press pass to the deciding match. To pull this off, I’d take WOW Air (never heard of them? Neither had I) from Reykjavik to Copenhagen, Denmark on November 17, where I’d spend the night. I’d depart Copenhagen at noon on the following day on Croatia Airlines where I’d spend two nights before leaving at the crack of dawn on the 20th, hoping to not only catch my WOW Air flight in Copenhagen, but also the back end of my Icelandair booking in Reykjavik. If I didn’t get back to Reykjavik on-time that day, I was in big trouble (as in, need a last second one-way ticket out of Europe trouble).

The Croatian team celebrates their World Cup berth. That's Real Madrid's Luka Modrić on the right, arguably Croatia's most well-known player.

The Croatian team celebrates their World Cup berth. That’s Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić on the right, arguably Croatia’s most well-known player.

To make a really long story short (or just kill the ending), soccer fans the world over now know that Iceland did not qualify for the World Cup. On a cold but extremely gratifying day, I watched intently as Iceland managed a 0-0 draw with the Croatians at a jam-packed and festive Laugardalsvöllur. I spent two days hanging around Reykjavik with my new Croatian friends from Toronto. I made it to Zagreb, where I browsed music shops near the Ban Jelačić square, bought some Dorina chocolate bars and visited the Dražen Petrović museum before taking in a 2-0 Croatian “rout” (they really did outplay Iceland, despite the relatively close score) at Stadion Maksimir. I also made it back to D.C. on the 20th without a hitch.

A dejected Gylfi Sigurðsson needed to be consoled after the game. Sigurðsson, Iceland's most notable player in Europe, will likely be a major player in their upcoming Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 qualification campaigns.

A dejected Gylfi Sigurðsson needed to be consoled after the game. Sigurðsson, Iceland’s most notable player in Europe, will likely be a major player in their upcoming Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 qualification campaigns.

Sadly, my contact with that major sports website never replied to my e-mails or phone calls once I was back and a story that I had written went unpublished and unfinished (it’s still on my laptop, 80% done). I shopped it around for a bit but eventually decided I had missed the window on it. It did get some interest elsewhere that also didn’t quite pan out.

In the end, I give plenty of thanks towards the Croatian federation, who were more helpful than they ever had to be. In writing (and especially freelancing) there are no guarantees and, heartbreakingly, my story remained untold until today. Also a shout out to the friendly Croatian TV assistant, who was nothing but helpful when I had trouble breaking through the language barrier and finding my allocated seat in the Maksimir press box. We talked for about a half hour about the Balkan war, Croatian politics, U.S. politics, heck, even the game itself 😉

Lastly, thanks again to my special Croatian-Canadian friends. It was great to share some footballing “war stories” with fans far more intelligent about the sport than I. While none of us were brave enough to try the horse meat (or whale steak) at Grillmarkaðurinn, dinner there was a great send off!

 

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