They began arriving Sunday some six hours before kickoff for the United States World Cup soccer game against Portugal. They wore red, white and blue bandanas, scarves, earrings, shorts, T-shirts and tank tops. Some simply draped themselves in Old Glory, and a couple carried full-size flags on poles.
By the game’s 6 p.m. start, the British Bulldog Pub had far exceeded its 205 standing-room capacity, with another 450 huddled around a portable bar and TVs outside. Then they all stood – some even removed their hats – and sang the national anthem in unison, even though the live version was played thousands of miles away in Brazil where the game was played.
Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” cascaded around the bar and out to the parking lot of the shopping center off Bower Parkway in Harbison. The same unified front of patriotism among soccer fans was played out across Columbia, and, no doubt, across the country.
“It’s equal parts soccer and equal parts patriotism,” said Chris Wilson, speaking a couple of hours before kickoff. Wilson is secretary of the America Outlaws, Columbia chapter, a 125-member strong group that gathers at drinking establishments year round to follow the game they love and support their soccer team.
If Sunday was any indication, soccer has finally arrived as a national sport. In less than a few decades, the sport has transformed from one universally scorned – at least by those who followed the traditional sports – to one united in its support from an entire country.
Unlike the Olympic Games, where citizens of the United States spread their support across numerous teams participating in a wide range of sports, soccer has the backing of everyone who has any sense of loyalty to their homeland.
As Sunday showed at the British Bulldog Pub, all were Americans pulling for a United States victory, no matter their loyalties on any other front. University of South Carolina and Clemson University fans were pulling for the same result. So, too, were liberals and conservatives, white fans and black fans, women and men.
This was no manufactured patriotism, like, say, the recent practice of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch at Major League Baseball games. There was no plea at any time for fans to “honor America” by cheering or chanting.
Catching up to the rest of the world in passion for soccer has been a long time coming. The United States team qualified for the 1990 World Cup for the first time in 50 years. The 1994 World Cup was played in the United States. The 2002 team advanced to the knockout round, where it defeated Mexico.
Now, this country has an entire generation that has grown up playing the game. That same generation has followed the game more closely on a global basis thanks to the expanded coverage of soccer on TV.
Just since the 2010 World Cup, interest in the game and pride in the United States team has grown exponentially. That year, Delaney’s Pub in Five Points was the only place for soccer fans to gather and watch the World Cup. On Sunday, Delaney’s, the British Bulldog Pub and Cock N’ Bull Pub-Grille in Rosewood all showed the game on multiple TVs to overflow crowds.
Fans began arriving early at the British Bulldog Pub, among them Mitch McCarty, 51, who works for the state of South Carolina. He took two weeks of vacation so he could sit at the same table to watch every single game of the World Cup.
“This happens every four years,” McCarty said. “You just go crazy. This is the love of football. This is the real football, the world’s game.”
Standing at the same table with McCarty was Marco Heinz, 45, who was born and raised in Germany before moving to this country in 1981. Heinz admitted to quietly pulling for Portugal to defeat the United States, since that would enhance Germany’s standing in the World Cup.
That was OK with everyone around Heinz.
“This is where every country can get along for 90 minutes,” McCarty said of the World Cup games.
It looked for all the world as if the United States would defeat Portugal and clinch a spot in the knockout round. When Clint Dempsey, a product of Furman, pushed in a goal in the game’s 81st minute, the United States led 2-1, and the British Bulldog Pub erupted in delirious joy.
Then, suddenly, in the game’s final seconds, Portugal managed a tying goal and the pub went nearly silent. Those draped in all varying kinds of United States attire quietly exited in stunned silence, their collective balloon burst.
No doubt they all will return on Thursday, again wearing their United States garb with clear throats in loyal support of their team in its round-robin finale against Germany.