This summer, football has finally taken its place in the heart of the American people. TV ratings for the tournament are through the roof – 14 million watched the defeat against Germany, including Barack Obama on board Air Force One, and astronauts on the International Space Station have beamed their own intergalactic celebrations back to Earth.
A wave of football fever has officially hit America and in recognition of such strength in spirit, they've written their own anthem (of dubious quality) to help cheer on the team. Never ones to miss out on opportunities for patriotic fervour, "We Believe" is being sung across Brazil by the 150,000 strong contingent of American fans.
This USA side is not one blessed with a multitude of international stars. Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard perhaps play lead roles as the side's most established international exports, but under the guidance of Jurgen Klinsmann they've established themselves as candidates to reach the quarter finals. In their way stand fellow dark horses Belgium, and it's a match eagerly anticipated by hordes of fans both back home and in Brazil.
Given the size of the country's population, the Major League Soccer's attraction to top players and an infrastructure geared towards sporting achievement, it's not hard to fathom the idea that in a decade or two, USA could be competing at the very top level of the sport. Don't be fooled by the "ties", "offensive plays" and "soccer balls" – their performances so far suggest that any underestimation of this industrious, slick unit would be an error.
We spent a day with a group of USA fans on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to gain some insight into how America came to fall in love with football.
It’s been an extraordinary tournament thus far – the defending champions disposed of early, a certain vampire on the field and a constant flow of goals, but it's been notable off the field for another reason altogether. Americans, who may count "soccer" as their fourth or fifth sport, are out in full-force at this tournament, both in South America and back home up North.
Some are here to party, some to follow the USA team, some just want to go to any old game, but most seem to be a combination of all three. Either way, they're making themselves heard by bringing a rare dose of American culture to the rest of the world’s favorite pasttime. Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro played host to an the American invasion on Thursday - fans who weren’t able to get tickets for the game in Recife flocked to the FIFA fan fest big screen by the thousands, fully decked in American flags, face paint, and numerous different versions of the USA jersey.
“It’s always sort of a concern traveling abroad, because a lot of people from other countries have a negative image of Americans, but here we’ve been wearing jerseys representing the U.S. and we've been totally accepted. People here are so nice and seem to really like us,” explains Dominic Leans, a 24-year-old fan from San Francisco. “We were going crazy when the US won their first game against Ghana and people started filming us to document the crazy way Americans celebrate!”
“Americans are really big on national pride,” says George Karas, a 29-year-old fan from Los Angeles, a soccer-playing L.A Galaxy fan. “During the Olympics, the entire country cheers on track runners, for example, or other random athletes they have never heard of – it’s more about cheering for the USA than anything else.”
Thursday’s loss against Germany led to some confusion – the crowd seemed unsure whether to celebrate the 1-0 loss against Germany and appeared to be conducting a serious internal debate in their heads: "Wait, we lost? Wait, but we’re still going to the knockout stage after we lost and tied? Alright, America!" Most concluded that celebrating was in order: fans jumped in the ocean, drank beers, and bellowed the country’s signature battle cry, "USA, USA, USA!" along with the popular but prosaic chant "I believe that we will win", which has caught on like wildfire during the World Cup.
Despite the loss, one patriotic bro ran down Copacabana beach waving a large American flag to celebrate the team's progression to the next round. Rio’s iconic beach had the feeling of a college frat party – mostly boys in their 20s decked out in red, white, and blue, chugging beers that, in Brazil, are actually meant to be split between three or four people. In a homage to college culture in the States, another USA fan was going from one American group to the next selling vodka-infused red and blue Jello shots.
Eyebrows were raised when FIFA published numbers revealing that in Brazil, Americans were the most represented foreign ticket holders with 154,000 tickets in total. They started off strong – 20,000 die-hard Americans filled nearly half of the capacity of Arena das Dunas in Natal for the USA’s opener against Ghana. Back home, viewing parties are going wild in bars across the country and big screens in public spaces are drawing crowds of up to 20,000. The USA v. Portugal game had 18.2 million viewers nationwide.
"It’s great to finally see the American spirit brought to football," explains George. He believes one of the reasons for the rising popularity is the change in style brought about by the new coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has implemented a more aggressive, attacking style. This, George says, is more exciting to see as a fan. "We’re just late to the party," explained Dominic, "Now the U.S. is investing more into the program because we want to be at least competitive in every sport." An explanation for the growing popularity could be that many Americans have followed the global trend of tuning into European football. Outside the World Cup, Dominic follows the England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. Others say that the country's immigrant population from football-loving countries is responsible.
Also with Dominic and George is JP Avila, a man born in Mexico City, but raised mostly in the United States. Growing up, he always rooted more for Mexico, as the team was stronger and it was more culturally significant. Today he sports a USA jersey, but says he still cheers for Mexico as well."“Now that the USA team is good, I root for them. But we are still waiting for that Kobe Bryant, or that Tom Brady," JP said, referring to two of basketball and American football’s biggest stars. "It’s really picking up though. In 12 years, we’re going to win the Cup," he predicted.