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Meet the retreating soldiers of 'Sam's Army'

By Ben Wyatt, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An estimated 15,000 members of unofficial U.S. supporters club went to South Africa
  • The U.S. group takes inspiration from Scotland's "Tartan Army" for its name
  • Americans bought more World Cup match tickets than any other nation apart from host
  • "Sam's Army" members say they would not have traveled so much if not for following soccer

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- The 2010 World Cup may be the first to be held in Africa, but it will also be remembered for a breakthrough that is altogether American.

More than 130,000 of the 2.8 million tickets on sale for the international festival of football were bought by fans from the United States, according to South Africa's organizing committee and world soccer's governing body FIFA.

This total was higher than any other nation bar the hosts. And, with an estimated 40,000 fans making the the journey to an event where the U.S. progressed past the group stages before losing out to Ghana, the large American contingent helped to shape the color and passion of the tournament.

Many of the self-dubbed "Sam's Army" -- a 15,000-strong unofficial supporters' club of the national side that were among the many to make the long journey across the Atlantic to watch Bob Bradley's side -- are returning home as veterans of a campaign that was rich in experience despite ending in defeat.

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"I've been to 17 countries and five continents [following the USA] and if I think back to the countries I've been to, there is no way I would have been there if it hadn't been for soccer," Sam's Army member Rishi Schgal told CNN.

The "army" -- who took inspiration from Scotland's "Tartan Army" for their name -- made their debut on the terraces in 1995 as a response to the surge in interest the United States had created among fans after hosting the World Cup in 1994.

In the 15 years since, the organization has encouraged those who have joined their ranks to stand up during games, sing their hearts out and wear red in support of the U.S. team. Their aim of making "soccer games a more enjoyable experience" has seen membership grow and grow.

"Back in '94, when we hosted the World Cup, there wasn't organized support. That was the first time I'd been to watch international soccer, it was there I saw the passion behind it," said Schgal, a veteran of four World Cups.

"Soccer is a cool thing that everybody in the world plays and understands. I'm a fan of the game, of traveling and meeting people. Following an international team, you travel so much, you learn so much because it's a medium to meet people.

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"Americans have this reputation that we only care about American things, but football is such an integral part of so many cultures around the world. When they see you are a fan it opens up access to the country and the people that you would never really get normally.

"I would not be here in South Africa if it weren't for soccer, you just don't get that with other sport."

Americans have this reputation that we only care about American things, but football is such an integral part of so many cultures around the world
--U.S. supporter Rishi Schgal
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Brazil's samba-driven carnival of cohorts, England's legions of vociferous supporters and the "Orange Army" of the Netherlands are among the well-established fan groups, but in 2010 some argue that American fans are making their mark.

"Every World Cup we've been growing in numbers, the Slovenia game [the USA's second game in Group C] felt like a home game in America as there were so many of us supporting the States. We're a lot more visible here because there aren't as many international fans, I think," Schgal said.

Schgal traveled to South Africa with 35 fellow fans, many of whom had been planning the trip for over a year following good experiences at the two previous World Cups in South Korea-Japan and Germany.

Another member of Sam's Army is Corey Vezina, a travel manager from the Bronx in New York.

"I started going to games in 2000. It's the best feeling you have as a soccer fan cheering for your team," he told CNN.

"Our culture is growing slowly. England's had a domestic league for 140 years -- we've had one for 15 years, so we're not doing bad," he told CNN.

"Soccer also has a way of bringing people together. We have so many different ethnic groups in America, soccer attracts so many of these to the games.

"We're not a country going into World Cups thinking we're going to win the thing, but I like to think we can give a good account of ourselves."

Monty Rodrigues, a 35-year-old financial analyst from Hampshire, said: "It's the camaraderie that we get out of these trips that makes it so special. We gave a great account of ourselves in this tournament so let's just hope the results follow!"

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