Ask a diehard soccer fan where the best place to watch a soccer game is, and that person may start the conversation by recommending prices for a plane ticket.
But if you ask Tunkhannock Area head boys’ soccer coach Mark Stroney, he might just bypass the ticket information and tell you where to go based on experience.
That’s because when the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Brazil this week, Stroney will be there, and it won’t be his first rodeo at a World Cup.
This trip will be number five.
“I’ve been waiting about seven years for this since they first announced that Brazil would be the host,” Stroney said. “It’s always an experience.”
The experience first began in 1982, when Stroney attended his first World Cup in Spain, and said “that kind’ve got me hooked on the whole World Cup experience.”
“I remember meeting a guy from New Zealand during my first trip and he said it was his only vacation every four years and he goes wherever the World Cup is,” Stroney added. “I thought that was pretty neat and I’ve been trying to stay in that mindset to make it an event every four years.”
From Spain, Stroney took an eight-year hiatus before heading to three straight World Cups.
In 1990, he went to Italy and saw 18 matches in 33 days. In 1994, when the U.S. hosted the event, Stroney saw matches throughout the country, including Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York. He attended his last World Cup 16 years ago in France.
Aside from the U.S., this year’s trip may also feel a little bit like home, since Stroney has visited Brazil more than a dozen times.
While coaching for Abington Heights, Lake-Lehman and at Keystone College, Stroney organized several summer soccer trips overseas for local soccer players.
The trip was open to any soccer players, and around 15 students from throughout the area would make the trip for the two week getaway that allowed players to experience the game play and culture of many different villages.
“The playing we did was a good experience for the kids,” Stroney said. “We’d train with some of the local pro teams or play high school age teams around there.”
The American athletes were also often viewed as celebrities by locals.
“We’d travel and end up in some random places; I like to call those my National Geographic moments,” Stroney joked. “The villages weren’t used to seeing American kids and they’d sometimes follow the bus around. I think that was the best part of the trip because we never repeated the same village when I went back.”
On Stroney’s first trip, news media met the athletes at the airport to welcome them to Brazil, and when Brazil played the United States in the World Cup, the national news showed the team watching the game on T.V.
Aside from a few minutes of fame, Stroney said the whole experience both on and off the field was the main reason for the trip.
“I didn’t want it to end up being a two-week vacation for both the players, and the parents,” he laughed. “The kids seeing the culture, training of players and what the game means to everyone, that’s what was important.”
For this trip, Stroney won’t be accompanied by soccer players, but plans to meet up with a former Abington Heights player and the coordinator of his past trips, who also is a former Brazilian goalkeeper who played in the days of Pele.
Stroney will depart on Monday, June 9, and plans to return home June 30.
He will be in attendance for what he hopes are seven matches, including the opening match of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team against Ghana on Thursday, June 16, and the following match against Germany, though tickets need to be ordered through a lottery by location and not match.
“When I ordered the tickets I was ordering my location and didn’t know who would be playing,” Stroney said. “It just happened that I ended up with two U.S. matches.”
Other matches include two of Italy’s games against Uruguay and Costa Rica, Mexico vs. Cameroon, Japan against Greece and Germany against Ghana.
With all the games he’s been to, Stroney said it was difficult to pick a favorite, but mentioned the match of the U.S. against Italy in Rome as a definite frontrunner.
“I was able to get on the FIFA bus from our hotel in Rome so I had a police escort to the stadium,” he said. “The intensity and loudness in Rome was deafening and I don’t think they gave us (the U.S. team) much hope and thought it would be an easy win. We only lost 1-0 and there was a moment or two when there was a chance to score.”
With the U.S. team set to compete in fewer than two weeks, countless Americans will take interest in their home team’s progress throughout the Cup.
But when Stroney isn’t coaching the Tigers, who will enter this season as the defending district champs, soccer still remains on his mind, and a trip to see the best soccer players in the world seems only natural, just like it does for fans across the world.
“I’ve never been to an American Super Bowl so I can’t compare it to that, but when the host country is playing everything comes to a stop,” Stroney said. “Cab drivers will watch the games on little televisions or pull up to a McDonalds to watch. Everywhere you go the game was on and there would be no distractions. It’s difficult to convey the build up of each game. Most fans begin celebrating the day before the match and will celebrate for a day after if they should win.”
When not in attendance for a match, Stroney plans to keep up with the other games throughout the day, which shouldn’t be too difficult.
“I’ll be watching as many of them as possible in the day,” he said. “You can catch the games in bars, restaurants or near the stadium, and the places will be packed. It’s not like here when people show up right before a game. Fans will be outside of the stadium for hours waiting to get in, gathering in their colors and singing and playing drums. They want to get in as soon as they can.”
Once inside, Stroney said it’s important to get comfortable, because few fans leave their seats once the match begins.
“You don’t leave to go get a beer or soda, someone brings that around because there are no stoppages,” he said. “The other fun is that there is only one person in the world who knows when the game will end, and that’s the referee. That’s the unique part of the game because it adds to the suspense and drama in a close match.”
As a coach for several decades, Stroney noted that there is always something to learn from watching game and culture of the best in the world.
“You don’t realize the difference from our country to the rest of the world,” Stroney said. “A 16-year-old high school kid who was serious about soccer might already be training for a professional team. Different countries use various tactics and may play veterans or a younger mix of players so you can see if they’re offensive attack and defense formations with that.”
Stroney also met with his returning players last week to encourage them to watch the World Cup and emulate the players who also play their position on the field.
He added the same recommendation to general soccer fans.
“Every four years it gives an added excitement to soccer,” Stroney said. “People who complain that the game is boring need to watch more than one match with an open mind.”
As for the United States’ chances in this year’s World Cup, Stroney said the odds are against them, but stranger things have happened.
“The pressure is on Brazil as the host country and Germany and Spain are probably heavy favorites,” he said. “The U.S. isn’t high in odds, but in World Cup history, Italy had a bad ranking once and advanced from the group with three ties. Let’s beat Ghana and play to a tie with Germany and Portugal.”
Stroney said he isn’t sure if he’ll make the trip to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, and has no plans of traveling to Qatar in 2022.
But much like the United States’ odds in this year’s World Cup, there’s always a chance.