It’s one of the most rewarding reasons to travel: hitting the road to follow your team, your band or hit the festival circuit.
Here, well-travelled soccer supporter Ben Willing shares his experiences as a jet-setting fan.
Diehard soccer fan Ben Willing has accumulated numerous, unforgettable moments in his years following his beloved Socceroos around the globe. But the memory he treasures even more than the sporting spectacles is an afternoon in 2006 when he took to the field himself, in a game between his group of travelling fans and the local football club in Ohrnberg, a pretty little town in rural southwest Germany.
It was one of those unexpected episodes that occur when people with a shared passion cross borders. The fans playing footy together were supporters of rival national teams in that year’s World Cup Finals in Germany– but they formed friendships that remain today.
For Willing, who has been hitting the road for more than a decade following soccer matches, the good-humoured encounter sums up the appeal of fan travel. “You wouldn’t have an experience like that any other way,” he says. “Everyone is there for the same reason, so you bond and become great friends. And you see places that you’d otherwise never have visited.”
FFA CEO David Gallop applauded Willing’s travels and those of his fellow football fans who help add to the unique atmosphere of football matches by supporting their teams on the road.
“Travelling interstate and overseas to watch your football team is one of the key drivers of the passion and atmosphere that makes football such a spectacle all over the world,” said FFA CEO David Gallop. “We are constantly amazed at the lengths the A-League and Socceroos fans will go to support their various teams and it is always embraced and appreciated by the players and staff they are supporting.”
Willing first hit the road when Australia’s Hyundai A League football competition formed in 2005.
“Before the first match, I got involved with the main supporters' group, The Cove, via an Internet forum,” he says. “Before this I’d never have entertained the idea of travelling outside Sydney to watch my team. But there was a strong push for the fans to travel in big numbers to away games.”
Willing's first trip was to see Sydney FC play in Brisbane. “Fellow fans shared travel advice on the forum. A mate and I decided to share a hotel room to save on costs. Other people stayed at a backpacker hostel.”
There was plenty of banter along the way, Sydney won 3-1 and Willing was hooked. “From that moment, I went to every Sydney FC away game within NSW, nearly every game in Brisbane and Melbourne, and sometimes Adelaide. After a while some of the people that I'd see regularly on these trips became great friends.”
Willing’s adventures went up a notch in 2006 when the Socceroos qualified for their first World Cup Finals in 32 years, to be held in Germany. He snapped up tickets to all of Australia’s scheduled games.
“A group of about 15 of us decided to hire cars and travel as a convoy,” he says. “In most cars it was four people sharing the costs. Most of the group decided not to book any accommodation and just wing it, taking tents and sleeping bags just in case.
“The Australian team based itself in Öhringen, so we made a beeline for Öhringen. By lunch-time on that first day a nearby local football club offered for us to camp next to their football pitch in a little town called Ohrnberg. And that's where we based ourselves from then on.”
Willing's group became firm friends with their German hosts, and that’s when their own memorable match happened. The Aussie visitors won – although Willing suspects they were given the win, in the name of international diplomacy.
One of the main challenges for fans at international tournaments is that your plans are tied to your team’s performance. If they play well and progress to the next round, in another region, you move with them. You need to be flexible and adventurous, says Willing.
“In 2007 the Socceroos played at the Asian Cup, which was being held in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. If Australia topped their group they'd remain in Bangkok for a quarter final, then possibly go to Kuala Lumpur for a semi final. If they finished second in their group they'd play a quarter final in Hanoi, with a possible semi final also in Hanoi.”
The fans had to hedge their bets, organising visas and travel for all options, but expected the Socceroos to remain in Kuala Lumpur. They didn’t, says Willing, “That meant many people's plans had to change. Luckily there are a few cheap budget airlines in Asia. We all organised flights to Hanoi.”
The Socceroos lost to Japan on penalties and were eliminated, leaving their fans to fill their remaining time in Asia. It was all part of the fun, says Willing. “It was just so easy and cheap to change our plans on the run.”
Fate took a different turn for the Socceroos when Willing followed them to the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa. The team failed to progress from the group stage, leaving their jet-setting fans with a fortnight free to enjoy the local sights. After time in Durban, Rustenburg and Nelspruit, Willing based himself in Cape Town, enjoying local activities including winery tours and cage diving with great white sharks. “Cape Town was my favourite South African destination and another standout experience,” says the seasoned adventurer.
By Amy Cooper