Area fans rise early to drink in U.S. game

Soccer mania evident but far from violent

June 22, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The feet of fifth-graders dangled from Baltimore's bar stools at 7 a.m. yesterday, and no one disapproved because customary proprieties were suspended under the banner of patriotism and the search for a shared experience.

After Senegal upset France, they danced in the streets of Dakar. A Russian loss led to rioting and fatalities in Moscow. But soccer fanaticism was a bit more subdued when the United States' giddy run through the World Cup was finally terminated by Germany.

At the Hubcap Inn, the final whistle signaled a smattering of drunken epithets but an orderly exit onto Belair Road by some viewers headed to work and others home to remedy three weeks of sleep deprivation.

About 4,000 fans flocked to Washington's RFK Stadium to watch the game on a big screen, and 5,000 went to the home of the Columbus Crew to do the same, both courtesy of Major League Soccer teams. But in Baltimore, some bars enjoyed the kind of brisk business that has been commonplace in Manhattan this month.

A manager at ESPN Zone in the Inner Harbor estimated that yesterday's game drew 450 patrons, roughly the number it would get for a Monday Night Football telecast. The crowd there ranged from a large group of kids from ex-Blast goalie Keith Van Eron's Cockeysville-based soccer club to a family from Florida to Julian Demiri and some countrymen from Albania. The Albanians cheered Germany.

"If we were back in Albania, then nobody would be in work," Demiri said. "It would be like a ghost town - only cats and dogs in the streets. Back home, soccer is life."

The gathering at Mother's in Federal Hill included 20something men talking about the merits of Brazil, which earlier in the day had beaten England. The group at the Hubcap Inn was better lubricated. It's a neighborhood NASCAR joint, but this month, it's been pushed as a soccer haven by WNST radio entrepreneur Nestor Aparicio.

Nearly 200 men, women and children crammed into the two-story bar in Gardenville for the second straight Friday. They had moaned throughout a 3-1 loss to Poland the previous week, when the U.S. team backed into the elimination round, but yesterday's bravura start by the Americans hopped up the Hubcap crowd.

As some men around him voiced dialogue right out of Among the Thugs, a book about brutish British fans, Jason Vidi sat innocently at the bar.

Jason, who'll be a fifth-grader at St. Anthony of Padua school, scored 14 goals for his Rosedale indoor team last winter. He has also accomplished something greater, getting his father, Paul, to cheer for the United States as much as he has Italy.

"My father's in Italy right now - left last night for a town about 35 kilometers north of Milan," said Jason Vidi, who works in his family's knife-sharpening business. "I've never visited Italy. I rooted for them the other day [against South Korea], when they got robbed. It's nice to see the U.S. [team] go a little farther."

The scene was more solemn in the upstairs banquet rooms, where fans stood for the national anthem and at game's end broke into appreciative applause for the Yanks.

Upstairs, the beverage of choice was coffee, not beer. One father held a school-age child on each knee. Two seats to his left sat Eric Bray, who left his five children with his wife at home in Perry Hall. He's among those who saw every minute of every U.S. team match live, including the ones that began at 2:30 a.m. Eastern time.

"Sleep? I'm really hurting," said Bray, who stayed awake last Sunday to take in early Monday's monumental 2-0 win over Mexico at the Kiss CafM-i in Canton. "The morning of the South Korea game, I had to be at work at 7. I watched Brazil-England at home this morning. I'm on my way to work later, and I've got a game of my own tonight."

Bray, 32, was on an endurance test, because his unlimited team, the Red Dogs, was scheduled to play in Howard County last night. He grew up in Salisbury and played for Baltimore County Community College-Catonsville.

When the United States was host to the 1994 World Cup, Bray attended some matches at RFK Stadium. He watches with an experienced eye, but he's too young to remember 1974, when Baltimoreans had to drive to Washington just for the right to pay to see the World Cup final between West Germany and the Netherlands on closed-circuit television.

Stefan Rubin, one of the first through the Hubcap Inn's doors yesterday, is among the growing demographic of American soccer fans that made ESPN's package a can't-miss proposition. A club lacrosse player who lives in Charles Village, Rubin said he turned onto soccer by watching a nephew's games. Now he joins him for pick-up games.

Yesterday, Rubin invited Winston Miller, his boss at a real estate firm here, to join him. Miller likes the game because, unlike baseball or football, it fits into a two-hour window.

But nearly everyone at the Hubcap Inn was pulling for extra time yesterday and the prospect of a penalty kick shootout. There was anxiety when Germany scored, distress when American captain Claudio Reyna's long volley at an open net was high and wide left.

"Imagine if we had scored on one of those headers," Rubin said. "We'd all be taking our shirts off and doing flips."

Sun staff writer Alex Kopicki contributed to this article.

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