ORLANDO, Fla. — When Orlando City fan Tom Chivilo’s plane touched down on the MCO tarmac on Thursday afternoon, his phone immediately buzzed with bad news.
Chivilo and his girlfriend, Brittany, were at the start of an annual pilgrimage from Canterbury, United Kingdom, to Exploria Stadium for an Orlando City game. He’d packed his Orlando City jersey in his luggage to keep it clean and safe for Saturday’s match against the Chicago Fire.
The couple didn’t have Internet or phone service on the nearly 10-hour flight. So when they landed at 4 p.m. ET, they had no way of knowing every major American sports league issued suspensions on Thursday to help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The news began to flood his phone from a group chat with fellow Orlando City fans — the MLS season was suspended, the game was canceled and the couple had flown all this way just to return empty handed.
The news came as a shock at first, but Chivilo quickly tried to put on a brave face.
“Just gutted is the only way to put it,” Chivilo said. “But then we got into the sunshine and all was good again.”
Chivilo first visited Orlando in 2015 and immediately fell in love. He returned home to Canterbury and began researching Florida clubs. When he saw that Kaká — one of his all-time favorite footballers — now played for the Lions, he officially became a fan.
One night while watching a match, Chivilo researched Orlando City UK. He connected with Taylor Williams, a fan who runs a vibrant supporters group from the United Kingdom.
Chivilo ended up spending more time chatting with Williams and other fans through the match than watching the play. He was already invested in the team, but now, Chivilo was hooked on the fandom as well.
Since then, Chivilo has made the trip to Orlando once every year — the New York Red Bulls match in 2017, the Montreal Impact game in 2018 and then an offseason visit last year. This season, he booked again without hesitation.
Even when the Lions have struggled, Chivilo said his connection to fellow Orlando City fans has made the difference. From tailgating to music to smoke bombs in the supporters section, he feels everything about an Orlando City game day adds up to an experience he can’t find in the United Kingdom.
After his arrival, Chivilo reached out to the Orlando City ticketing office for a refund for his tickets. But he won’t be able to wrangle enough time off work to return for another match this season.
Despite his disappointment, Chivilo is keeping a positive outlook on the trip. He still plans to connect with fellow fans, and he hoped to visit Disney World with his girlfriend on Saturday.
“I think everyone’s frustrated of course, so many sports fans are devastated,” Chivilo said. “I think we will look back on it though and obviously understand.”