Stop The World

June 27, 1998|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN STAFF Staffer Young Chang contributed to this story.

It's Earth's biggest party, played to a world beat. Minus a few thousand hooligans, give or take, the World Cup soccer marathon has a lot to teach statesiders on how to cheer with a certain international flair.

There's the sexy samba Argentinian players do to celebrate a goal (even if the tango would be more appropriate).

There are the Jamaican fans driving a truckload of dancing women and reggae musicians around France for the sheer joy of being part of the scene.

There are those no-holds-barred Brazilian women who scream while their men simply clench their jaws and fists whenever a foe threatens to score.

And get a load of those Dutchmen who root for their team dressed as winsome (Not!) milkmaids.

Americans may be sports-obsessed, but for the most part they don't get the World Cup. Too bad. It's the ultimate international sporting event for reasons ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime: The hunk factor.

The great hair.

The bad hair.

The painted faces.

The politics.

The humor.

The music.

The drama.

And that official World Cup Gesture of Anguish: hands to head, body tilted back in the agony of defeat.

When the month of rivalry and revelry is over, organizers estimate that 37 billion viewers will have tuned in for the World Cup's 64 games. Today, as the Championship Round begins, expect soccer passion to fly off the chart. For evidence, look no farther than Baltimore, where hot pockets of soccer zeal have been erupting during the first round. From pizza joints to social clubs to a Johns Hopkins University pub that has become soccer central for international graduate students, soccer mania has prevailed here for two weeks.

It's the post-lunch hour lull at Fortunatos Brothers Pizza on York Road. Outside, it's a somnolent Wednesday afternoon. Inside, pizza production has come to a halt for the Italy vs. Cameroon match. The shop's ablaze with Italian red, green, yellow streamers and balloons. A soccer pinata hangs festively from the ceiling, and even the pizza boxes are decorated with a soccer theme.

Behind the counter, the older di Meo boys lean in taut suspense over a spread of pizzas, garlic and tomato bread, and occasionally fill stray orders. Siblings, too young yet to work, sit at tables. The littlest kids are bedecked with braided streamers.

All eyes are tilted toward the large screen, placed for the occasion on top of the soda case. Maria (Mom), Mario, Stefano, Daniela, Rosario, Gaetano, Tony, Maria's brother Michael Barone, his wife Angela, and Jack Berrenger, the only employee there who isn't family. Antonio, the di Meo patriarch, is busy in the back -- someone has to keep the business going -- but even he appears from time to time to watch the game.

Cheers and barbs fly in Italian, and laughs explode when the Italian goalie strong-arms an opponent with a certain inimitable Italian panache.

Soon, an old man arrives at the restaurant. He wears a straw fedora and those huge, protective sunglasses spotted frequently senior citizens. Ceremoniously, he removes something from a brown paper bag. It's a framed photograph of Italian soccer star Roberto Bagio. It's placed gently on the counter, an object of great reverence, now a shrine. The man sits down to watch and chat in his native tongue. He comes in frequently, but the di Meos don't know his name.

In a little while, the man departs, but leaves the photo on the counter.

# His talisman works;

Italy wins.

Saturday afternoon: At first there are 30, then there are seven. With Korea down 2-0 against the Netherlands, customers gathered at Nam Kang Restaurant can't stomach the possibility of another loss, so most leave. The handful who don't are gloomily braced for loss, cheering when Korea's goalie blocks a few goals, groaning when the Netherlands scores.

"We don't have to win, but just one goal," pleads Chong Nim Shin, owner of the restaurant on Maryland Avenue. She faces a television near the sushi bar. "I wish we'd make just one goal."

"A second goal would follow a first," adds a customer, also in Korean.

So they watch, each with determination, each with their own theory as to what is wrong with the plays. The Netherlands scores again. Korea is now down 3-0.

"At this rate, we'd be lucky to lose 5-0," a customer says.

A fourth goal follows. The wistful sighs blend into laughs of disbelief. Someone else walks out the door. A fifth goal and the game is over.

Unfortunately, the prediction has become reality. But the customer who made it has already left.

Sunday, 8: 30 a.m. at E Level Pub on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus. Manager Pat Bearry has turned the place over to a flock of German graduate students, hungry to watch their team play in appropriate fashion.

The dad of two had to get up at 7 a.m. to be here, on Father's Day, no less. But if he didn't, the students would have no place to go.

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