Cup fervor stirs Baltimore enclaves

Whether from San Salvador or Seoul, passion is the united state of soccer fans


At a West Indian club in Park Heights, they're readying the menu and the calypso music. In the ballroom of a Korean mall in Catonsville, the fans are hooking up the satellite feeds. And in Baltimore's Highlandtown, immigrant merchants old and new are preparing their bars and restaurants to be the epicenter for viewing the soccer world's most revered competition: the World Cup.

The fervor of international soccer might be lost on many Americans, but don't tell that to those in the Baltimore area's ethnic enclaves where fans have been preparing for weeks in anticipation of the monthlong event, which starts today.

In Highlandtown, with its stew of ethnicities, restaurants and bars are opening early and closing late, inviting fans supporting countries as diverse as Angola, England, Japan, Ukraine and even the United States to watch the games with the faithful.

Marco F. Cocito-Monoc, president of the Southeast Community Development Corp., has encouraged merchants to offer specials during World Cup month to highlight the area's diversity and give soccer novices a glimpse into what drives the sport's passion.

Cocito-Monoc, himself a soccer fanatic, is still upset about Italy's wrenching loss to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final after a scoreless game was decided in a shootout. "I cried for seven days," he said.

This year, he's hoping to celebrate, not only for Italy, but with a final game extravaganza, designed to draw in the Highlandtown community.

In the tradition of his native Italy, where hundreds gather in historic piazzas to view big matches, the event will feature a huge television screen in Conkling Plaza.

"If there is one place where you can understand World Cup mania, it's in Highlandtown," said Cocito-Manoc. "And we hope it will be a great learning experience for everyone to understand the passion that is the World Cup, because a lot of Americans just don't get it. Some say it's a religion, but it's more of a way of life."

When soccer ruled

Joe DiPasquale, who owns DiPasquale's Italian Market on Gough Street, remembers when soccer ruled in the Italian enclave around Our Lady of Pompei Catholic Church. Long before suburban moms began shuttling their broods to tournaments, soccer was king in Baltimore's Highlandtown, he said.

The local kids would gather on the field behind what is now the John Booth Senior Center. And when that wasn't available, they'd kick a ball around the pavement, using whatever they could find as goalposts.

Though the grassy lot is now overgrown and the younger generations have moved away, DiPasquale hopes to rekindle the soccer glory days when he transforms his popular deli into a gathering spot for viewing the Italian and American squads during the tournament.

"We had the best players on the entire East Coast, right here in this tiny lot," he says pointing to the cracked cement. "When Italy won the World Cup in 1982, the rest of Baltimore didn't care. But here, it was a huge celebration."

Giuliano Celenza grew up across the street from that field and began playing soccer at age 3. Today he plays midfield for the Baltimore Blast of the Major Indoor Soccer League. "We just had the love of the game," he said.

His only frustration with the World Cup is the four years between tournaments, a painfully long wait for a serious fan, he said.

"Being a soccer fan, if you are not happy this summer, you will never be happy," he said.

Nearby in Highlandtown, Carlos Cruz has been working feverishly to open his new sports bar, Carlos O'Charlie's on Eastern Avenue, in time for the start of the tournament.

Although his native El Salvador is not one of the world's 32 nations that will face off in the tournament held throughout Germany, he will cheer on the tournament's other Latin American nations - Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

U.S. ranked fifth

Oh, and the United States, he added. Though not historically a soccer powerhouse, the Americans are ranked fifth this year.

"Don't forget, the U.S. is going to be up there," he said, "I think they are going to put on a great show."

The sports bar features 34 televisions, including a 20-inch set in the men's bathroom, tuned to ESPN or the Spanish-language network Univision, which will broadcast all games live.

"I don't want anyone to miss a second," he said.

Cruz hopes to attract many of Southeast Baltimore's new Latino immigrants, who have brought a fresh crop of amateur soccer leagues to Baltimore.

Elsa and Daniel Bustos run what is known as the International Soccer League, comprising 14 teams with players of Latin American descent. Weekend games are held in Clifton Park, but this week Elsa Bustos has encountered a scheduling problem. No one wants to play on Sunday, when Mexico faces Iran at noon.

"Oh my gosh, everyone is crazy this week," she said. "It's all they can talk about."

Although her husband played soccer professionally in Mexico years ago, Elsa Bustos, who is originally from Ecuador, did not grow up as a huge fan.

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