By Angel Verdejo
The Cove Herald
Michael Epley wanted to go see the World Cup. His wife, Gisela Knightstep, wanted to travel.
The newly-named Copperas Cove head boys soccer coach said, "the two just fit."
Epley, 33, and Knightstep, 29, took a two-week trip to South Africa, where they watched the United States play three matches, went on a safari and swam with sharks.
"South Africa has a bad reputation, but the people there were nothing but wonderfully nice to us," Epley said. "We had heard all the same things everyone else had said about it being dangerous, but it was nothing like that."
The couple, who have been married for three years and together for 12 years total, went to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and have already started planning a trip to the 2014 World Cup to be held in Brazil.
Based on their German experience, Epley and Knightstep had already understood the size and scope of the World Cup.
An estimated 715 million people watched the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France, according to television data provided by FIFA (soccer's international governing body) on its website.
The first time around, though, Epley and Knightstep learned a few lessons along the way.
"I knew that it was going to be big, especially it being right in the middle of Europe," Epley said. "She didn't quite understand that, so we didn't plan everything out."
More than 3.3 million people attended the 64 matches in Germany. In the Unites States' three pool matches, the least attended - the finale against Ghana which eliminated America - drew an estimated 41,000 people.
"It was a little bit more hectic because we didn't know where we were going to be sleeping from night to night," Epley said. "This time she understood and we booked everything well in advance - well, well in advance."
Taking in the sights
The trip included the three United States' pool games. Epley and Knightstep returned home Saturday, the same day America lost to Ghana 2-1 in the Round of 16.
"We just wanted to catch the U.S. games and then on the days that they weren't playing, go see the sights, go on a safari and do all the tourist-type things," Epley said.
One of those "tourist" items included Knightstep's Christmas present - a shark-cage diving excursion at Cape Town. "The sharks come right up to the cage," Epley said. "She had one that literally banged up on the cage right in front of her trying to tear off a fish head."
It wasn't a couple's diving trip though.
"I don't like fish," Epley said. "I didn't even want to go on the boat. If I could have stayed on shore, I would have stayed on shore, but I didn't want to send her out there by herself."
Epley and Knightstep heard the vuvuzelas - the plastic horns that produce loud monotone sounds and have been the center of controversy and criticism.
For much of the World Cup, television viewers have expressed frustration with the vuvuzelas, as commentators have been drowned out by the continuous "bee-like" sounds.
Epley said in the stadiums however, the vuvuzelas don't drown out the singing and chanting. In America's first match - a 1-1 draw against England on June 12 - Epley said he enjoyed the English atmosphere and singing.
"I know y'all can't hear them and it couldn't be heard on TV because of the vuvuzelas," he said. "They were singing and they would chant about the U.S. - 'You've only got one song.' - because all we do is the 'U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.' But the vuvuzelas aren't as bad."
Epley heard complaints on the radio after the America-England match. He also heard supporters, who said the vuvuzelas are simply part of South Africa's culture.
"If we go to England, we don't tell them to stop singing and chanting do we?" Epley said. "So, they said these people need to just get over it. In four years, when it's somewhere else, they can watch it the way those people - the Brazilians - watch it."
Ups, downs & ends
The United States picked up a second draw, tying Slovenia 2-2 June 18. Controversy didn't escape that match either.
Slovenia took a 2-0 lead before the U.S. rallied with two second-half goals, but a third would-be goal in the 86th minute was taken away due to a foul called.
"Whenever we went down 2-0, everybody lost heart that we were going to come back," Epley said. "We got the first goal and then we got the second goal. Then when they scored the third goal that was then taken back later, nobody knew in the stands what the call was because you could tell they weren't off-sides.
"That was a huge reaction. It was close to the Landon Donovan goal in the overtime (against Algeria) because everybody saw that that goal went in and there's no reason why it should have been called back. So, there was a lot of yelling at the ref on that one."
The Donovan goal sent the Americans in to the Round of 16 after not getting out of pool play in 2006.
"It hit the 90th minute and to be perfectly honest, I was putting my stuff away because I had my camera there. I had my video camera there," Epley said. "I was putting that stuff away so when the final whistle blew, we could get out. And whenever the goal went in, the stadium just erupted."
Epley and Knightstep didn't get to watch the last U.S. match live, as their trip was pre-planned and pre-budgeted. The two returned home just in time to watch the second half of America's loss to Ghana.
They've also started saving for Brazil - Epley has a portion of his pay set aside for travel.
As far as South Africa, Epley didn't hesitate in saying he wants to go back.
"I really enjoyed it," he said. "I'm going to try to talk my parents into going back to do that safari."
Contact Angel Verdejo at email@example.com or (254) 501-7564.