Leisure

World Cup Fever

Searching for soccer fanatics from Northampton to Chicopee

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

When Thomas Muller scored to put Germany up 1-0 over the United States, the lunchtime crowd gathered around the outdoor beer garden bar at the Munich Haus in downtown Chicopee let out a long, audible sigh of disappointment.

“Don’t worry,” a man said to his buddies. “The U.S. can lose and still make it to the next round on goal differential.”

With 30 minutes remaining in the match, I took a final sip from my stein of Spaten Lager, paid the Bavarian-dressed barkeep and headed down Springfield Street to The Rumbleseat Bar and Grille, where the local branch of the U.S. soccer fan club American Outlaws was watching the game.

A week later I would return to the Rumbleseat when the U.S. lost to Belgium 2-1 in extra time, ending America’s World Cup run.

“I remember watching the ‘86 Cup by myself,” a man wearing a red, white and blue wig with matching face paint and the American flag as a cape told me that day, as we eagerly awaited the start of extra time. “Now look at this place.” He motioned to the packed sports bar.

 

I was looking for a few dedicated soccer (dare I say football?) fans of international origin who regularly gather together—not just every four years during the World Cup—to follow Italy’s top league Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, or another high-level league. I wanted to speak with them about watching the world’s most popular sport stateside in an America that, despite ESPN’s hyped-up World Cup coverage, often ignores or willfully disparages the so-called “beautiful game.” Given the various ethnic ties we have throughout the Valley, I expected to discover one or two pockets of fan fanaticism. But what I found surprised me.

Games (dare I say matches?) during the final week in June involved Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Portugal, Germany, the United States and other countries. Many fans, of course, would watch from home. Hoping to find a more public gathering, however, I looked for bars and restaurants at which to watch portions of the Mexico-Croatia, Italy-Uruguay and U.S.-Germany contests.

Veracruzana, in downtown Northampton, regularly shows soccer games. I’ve noticed La Liga matches there several times. It is “the place where Hilltownies, townies, and foreign nationals all meet together,” a regular told the Advocate.

By the time I got there after work, the match was tied 0-0 (dare I say nil-nil?) early in the second half, with both Mexico and Croatia still able to avoid elimination and advance to the second round. The Spanish-language Univision broadcast was turned up in place of the restaurant’s usual background music, and half a dozen patrons were gathered near the TV. Two of them left soon after Mexico scored the go-ahead goal—the first of three Los Manitos would net in a 10-minute span.

And while the futbol-watching crowd was certainly pro-Mexico, what little cheering and celebration occurred was subtle and nearly nonexistent. One man belatedly shouted, “Gooooal!” after the first score, but his enthusiasm only highlighted how subdued everyone else was. By the time the referee blew the final whistle around 6 p.m., the restaurant was packed with its usual dinner crowd, and there was little talk or enthusiasm about Mexico’s impressive 3-0 win.

“Is the game over?” the woman behind the counter asked me.

“Yes,” I answered.

She muted the post-game analysis and turned the music back on.

Springfield’s South End sounded more promising, so the next day I headed to La Fiorentina for the noontime kickoff between Italy and Uruguay. Again I found about half a dozen fans watching the English-language ESPN broadcast. The cafe was otherwise empty. All the men seemed to know each other, and complained animatedly about Italy’s poor play (the Azzurri were clearly aiming for a draw—all they would need to advance to the second round), Mario Balotelli’s sloppy yellow-carded challenges, and of course the officiating.

Not wanting to interrupt their viewing enjoyment, I decided to talk with them at halftime. But after the first 45 minutes, they left and didn’t return. Perhaps they had to get back to work? Perhaps they went somewhere else to watch the second half? I’m not sure. Early into the second half, I left as well.

Walking past Mom and Rico’s, I noticed the #21 jersey of Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo hanging in the storefront window. Italy had taken a 1-0 loss to Uruguay in what was likely the last match he’ll play for his national team.

 

Coverage of soccer in the American media tends to be less about the actual action on the field (dare I say pitch?) and more about the coverage of soccer by the American media. For the most part, this coverage is either wildly approved of or heartily frowned on.

“Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay,” conservative commentator Ann Coulter wrote the day before the U.S. advanced to the second round. “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.”

Listening to ESPN Radio’s broadcast of the U.S.-Germany game as I drove to Chicopee, I heard analyst Tommy Smyth say that the broadcast was being heard over the loudspeakers in State College, Penn. (home of Penn State University). Television highlights of the match later that night interspersed scenes of crowds from Seattle to Kansas City (“the heartland,” noted ESPN) to Washington, D.C. gathering to watch the game projected onto a giant screen.

After my visit to the Munich Haus, I heard that reporters from Springfield’s WGGB-40 had been there. When I arrived at The Rumbleseat, there were cameras from WSHM-3. A week later, when I returned during the knockout stage, a WLLP-22 news van was parked outside.

There were also hundreds of American soccer fans—almost all of them decked out in red, white and blue—cheering loudly and following the matches intently.

 

The Rumbleseat is home base (to mix a sports metaphor) for the local chapter of the American Outlaws, the national fan following of U.S. soccer. There are only three chapters in Massachusetts: in Chicopee, in Adams, and in the Boston neighborhood of Dorcester.

Arriving at The Rumbleseat a few minutes after leaving the Munich Haus, I was greeted by the familiar summertime sports scent of grilled burgers and hot dogs as well as chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” It was crowded at the bar, so I found a spot by one of the many flat-screen TVs in the back of the packed room.

In attendance were fans ranging from retirement age down to toddlerhood, several kids, a mother wearing a Baby Bjorn, and dozens of women and men in their twenties. By far the most popular choice of American soccer jersey worn by fans was that of U.S. National Team captain Clint Dempsey, who was born in a trailer park in Texas.

With the U.S trailing Germany 1-0 in the seventieth minute, a fan at the bar began to cheer slowly and purposefully. “I believe!” he bellowed. “I believe!” answered the Outlaws. “I believe that we can win!” the fan replied, causing the crowd to clap rhythmically and chant: “I believe that we can win! I believe that we can win!” over and over again.

In the eightieth minute, fans again erupted in cheers. One screen in the corner of the bar was showing the Portugal-Ghana game. Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo had just scored to put his team up 2-1. The U.S. would advance out of the first round despite a loss to Germany.

The final whistle blew 10 minutes later. The U.S. had lost the game but won its objective, advancing to the Round of 16, a better fate than that of traditional European soccer powers England, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blasted out of the speakers across the bar as the crowd slowly began to thin out.

On the sidewalk, I passed a man wearing a red, white and blue bandana. “Fuckin’ great place to watch a soccer game!” he said.

“Yes. It is,” I agreed. In the background, I could hear fans singing gleefully along with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be An American.•

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