By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; D01
JOHANNESBURG -- The flights arrive daily at OR Tambo International Airport from New York, Atlanta and Washington, delivering thousands of Americans to their vacations in South Africa. Other jets have passed through Paris and London, Frankfurt and Cairo, packed with bleary-eyed travelers completing journeys spanning up to two days.
They'll explore Kruger National Park in search of the Big Five -- the lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhinoceros -- and hike Cape Town's landmark Table Mountain. They'll trace Nelson Mandela's historic path and visit Soweto, the sprawling township where the struggle against apartheid took root.
Most of all, Americans are beginning to turn up in this enthralling land for decidedly nontraditional tourism pursuits: soccer.
As the sport's quadrennial spectacle, the World Cup, unfolds over the next month, starting Friday with the South Africa-Mexico match in Johannesburg, the largest number of ticket holders will come not from traditional soccer strongholds like England, Brazil or Germany but the United States.
According to the South African organizing committee and FIFA, soccer's international governing body, more than 130,000 of the 2.8 million tickets were purchased by U.S. residents, the highest total by any country other than South Africa. Donald Gips, U.S. ambassador to South Africa, estimated that between 25,000 and 40,000 Americans would attend some of the 64 matches.
They are not necessarily coming to see the U.S. team, however. Although there's no way to determine, through ticket purchases, a fan's rooting interest, the United States' broad ethnic makeup suggests that many will support Mexico, Honduras and other Latin American nations.
Nonetheless, the massive ticket-buying effort "says a lot about the growth of the game in the U.S.," said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "It also says something about the size of our country, the wealth of our country and the diversity of our country."
Of the three first-round matches involving the U.S. team, Saturday's meeting against Group C favorite England was the most appealing to American supporters. The USSF sold its entire allotment of tickets: about 5,200 at 44,530-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg. Other U.S. fans purchased tickets through FIFA's distribution program and tour packages. Vice President Biden is scheduled to attend.
Despite the show of force, the U.S. fans are still likely to be outnumbered by their counterparts backing England, which has centuries-old ties to South Africa and a base of supporters that travels en masse to major competitions regardless of location.
England was second behind the United States in ticket purchases by foreign fans, followed by Australia, Mexico, Germany and Brazil. The global economic crisis forced South African organizers to lower expectations of visitors to 300,000 from 450,000.
Americans, though, didn't seem to curtail their plans.
"There is a perception that, in the States, it is mainly Spanish-speaking Americans, it's their game," said Danny Jordaan, chief executive of South Africa's World Cup organizing committee. "What we found is that it has become more of a sport than to just Spanish-speaking Americans. It's good for the sport in the country."
Americans of varying backgrounds are making the trip. Clifton Broumand, who operates a computer hardware company in Landover, said he has attended every World Cup since 1982. (He has also been to all but one Indianapolis 500 the past 40 years.)
Broumand, 52, rarely buys tickets in advance. Rather, he prefers to stand outside a stadium wrapped in an American flag and hold up an index finger, seeking one ticket.
"There is always one ticket out there," he said. "I don't always get in because the asking price might be too high. Sometimes I'll just hang out in the town, watch on TV and just be part of the scene."
Broumand is hoping to attend 20 matches in South Africa, including 15 in a two-week stretch. Last year, he came for the Confederations Cup, an eight-team dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Broumand is returning despite being assaulted and robbed while staying at a bed and breakfast north of Johannesburg.
"South Africans are wonderful people," he said. "I wasn't going to cancel my trip over that [incident], but I am better prepared" for the country's notorious crime rate.
Clayton Casteel, a 27-year-old financial analyst from Chicago, will attend his first World Cup, joined by several friends who made travel arrangements through the American Outlaws, a fan group that is sending many members to South Africa. Casteel followed the U.S. team to Costa Rica last year for a World Cup qualifier and was joined by, among others, friend Tim Mohan, who wears a Captain America outfit to matches.
Louisa Harrison, a software project manager from Chapel Hill, N.C., is also making her first trip to the Cup. Her travel route: Raleigh, N.C., to Newark to London to Johannesburg.
She caught soccer fever while attending a Mexico-Argentina friendly in San Diego a few years ago.
"It was such an electric environment, so much fun, I had to apply for World Cup tickets," said Harrison, who is planning to attend 10 matches. While ticket prices are reasonable for early-round matches, travel costs prevented some friends from attending.
Airfare to South Africa from the United States ranged from $1,500 to $4,000 in recent months and quality hotels were initially difficult to secure. Visitors also had to take into account logistical issues in an emerging country and South Africa's security concerns.
"It was a big commitment," Harrison said, "but I couldn't miss this."