published Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Soccer junkie: Sewanee coach shares his World Cup odysseys

Patrick Johnston is coach of the women’s soccer team at Sewanee: University of the South.
Patrick Johnston is coach of the women’s soccer team at Sewanee: University of the South.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

Patrick Johnston will be selling copies of his book, “The Odyssey of a Soccer Junkie,” on Friday at Finley Stadium during the Chattanooga Football Club’s match with Rocket City United at 7:30 p.m. Check out Patrick Johnston’s website at

thelanguageofsoccer.com.

WORLD CUP ON TV

The United States will take on Belgium today at 4 p.m. on ESPN in the first round of the “knockout” portion of the World Cup in Brazil. The winner advances and the loser goes home.

  • photo
    Patrick Johnston has attended each World Cup since 1986 except the 1994 cup held in the U.S.
    Staff Photo Illustration

Patrick Johnston has been in the stadium for almost 100 matches in the last seven FIFA World Cups, dating back to 1986.

Although the matches were in Mexico, Italy, France, South Korea, Japan, Germany and South Africa, not once did he have a ticket in hand when he left this country; often he didn't even have one just minutes before the games began.

The one World Cup he missed? The 1994 event held in the United States.

"I just totally was not inspired to go," says the Sewanee: University of the South women's soccer coach. "I never thought I was missing out on anything in 1994, even though it was in our back yard."

Not only did Johnston head off on his adventures without tickets, he often had little money in his pocket. Yet he has paid face value or more for tickets maybe 10 times in that entire run of World Cups. The rest he got through scheming, being smart and by impressing other people to give him a ticket because of his passion.

“The rest I got for free or at a real nice price,” he says from his home the day before the U.S. played Germany last week. He decided just this week to pack a travel bag and head to Brazil for this year’s cup, but he will be watching from home as the U.S. takes on Belgium today.

If the U.S. wins and advances, he says, he'll probably throw some things in a bag and head for Brazil. Leaving with only a few hours of planning is not that unusual for him.

"I've been in this situation before and ended up going," he says.

Johnston, 49, who played the soccer professionally in the U.S., says anyone who knows him at all would not be surprised that he would travel to a foreign country without much money, no ticket and no place to sleep. He only does so for soccer, however, and laughs at the idea that his college-aged daughter recently spent four days camping at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn.

"I would never do that," he says.

Andrea, Johnston's wife of 25 years, says she was well aware of her husband's passion for soccer before they got married.

  • photo
    Patrick Johnston, right, is shown with friend Doc Camero while attending the World Cup in Paris in 1998.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"I just expect it and I'm very independent or I couldn't survive this long," she says. "Soccer is more than a passion for him, it's an obsession. "

She hasn't accompanied him on any of his soccer forays; they're too willy nilly for her.

"I don't go because I like a plan, not going to just pack a bag and take off not knowing where I will be sleeping."

With almost 20 years of World Cup adventures behind him, Johnston has written a book about his experiences. Called 'The Odyssey of a Soccer Junkie," it's available on Amazon.com

In it, he recalls the highlights of many games he witnessed, including the 1986 Argentina-England match that featured not only Diego Maradano scoring what Fifa.com voters said was the Goal of the Century but his infamous earlier "Hand of God" goal as well.

"I was at that game. I was one of maybe 10 Americans there," Johnston says.

He was about 100 rows up in Mexico City's 120,000-seat Estadia Azteca, directly behind the goal, and had a great view of the "Hand of God" goal -- allowed because referees said they didn't see it touch his left hand before it went into the goal -- and also the remarkable individual effort on his second goal, which had Maradono weaving through English defenders from just past the center line to the goal. Argentina won 2-1.

"I had a perfect view of both goals," Johnston says. "It was memorable game, but a remarkable event to be there because of the Falkland War [England and Argentina fought over the Falkland Island in 1982, with England prevailing] was just four years earlier."Animosities were still running high for fans on both sides -- and the two teams already had a longstanding soccer rivalry.

  • photo
    Patrick Johnston, right, says part of his reason for going to the World Cup is the adventure of meeting new people, such as the two unidentified fans to the left and a dead ringer for French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, third from left, in 2006 in Hamburg, Germany.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Throughout his odyssey, Johnston has met hundreds of people from around the world, slept on park benches and in a million-dollar flat of someone he'd just met in Paris. Some nights he didn't sleep because he couldn't find a park bench. He doesn't try to put a value on whether he treasures more the soccer he has seen or the adventures he's had. You can hear in his voice as he describes them that both mean a great deal t o him.

One of his greatest tricks for getting a ticket given to him -- and sometimes several tickets -- is to ingratiate himself to fans from another country. One occasion, for example, with the Americans set to play Algeria, he passed on riding the bus to the game with compatriots and instead rode with Algerian fans.

"By the time the ride was over, I had about 60 new friends and a ticket," he says. "They could tell how passionate I was. Soccer is indeed the universal language."

For the most part, he says, soccer fans around the world all respect the passion of opposing fans. But there are exceptions.

"English hooliganism is real," he says. "You've got to be careful who you run with. It's the same with the Germans. Certain crowds you are best served to avoid. You learn that through experience. But overall, soccer fans are wonderful people."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

AP Interactive: World Cup Tracker
about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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