Note: This story was updated on June 20, 2014, to identify a previously unnamed Brazilian fan in the above photo.
SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Just 29 seconds into last night’s match, the USA’s Clint Dempsey scored a goal against Ghana, upending four years of predictions in favor of an easy Ghana victory. Though the game was played in Natal, a port city on Brazil’s eastern tip, American fans gathered at watch parties around Brazilian cities. In São Paulo, they converged at FIFA’s largest “Fan Fest,” a four-acre-long carnival of sponsors’ installations and beer vendors with a television screen the size of a swimming pool.
U.S. fans chanted lines from an expletive-laden song by the American rap group Wu-Tang Clan, and after both American goals, they cheered and screamed, beer flew and groups of young men converged into bouncing huddles. Somewhat incongruously, one fan whose face was painted red, white and blue wore a New England Patriots jersey and cap.
At game's end, the U.S. had won over Ghana 2-1, gaining three points and increasing their chances of making it into the next round. It was an unanticipated victory for the U.S., which is inevitably viewed as a World Cup underdog. Earlier in the day, ESPN quoted supremely confident Ghanaian midfielder Andre Ayew saying, “If we are fit and we are all 100 percent there is no way that we aren't going to win this game." Few would have disagreed. Ghana beat the U.S. in both 2010 and 2006.
Americans aren’t known to be the most loyal soccer fans, despite the popularity of the sport among school-aged kids. The country’s team usually gets booted fairly quickly out of the Cup, and before the game, American fans who spoke with International Business Times admitted that they closely follow other teams, hedging their emotional bets.
“I also follow the Mexican team, because my family is Mexican,” said Eddie Salas, of Los Angeles. Salas traveled to Brazil with his friend Sonny Chattle, also from Los Angeles. If the U.S. team loses, he said, “I’ll cheer for Germany. I was there in 2010 and I formed a special bond for the country.”
U.S. fans watch the U.S.-Ghana match on a giant screen in Sao Paulo, Brazil.Photo: Cedar Attanasio
Some fans said Americans are simply waiting for something to cheer about before embracing soccer on a global scale. If so, yesterday’s U.S. win could spark enthusiasm that has slowly grown since the U.S. hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994. For now, the sport pales in comparison with the all-American trinity of basketball, baseball and American football.
But on Monday, enthusiasm was on full display at the World Cup Fan Fest, which had the feel of a Cancun beachfront meshed with a state fair. Official FIFA sponsors sold plastic cups of booze, and beach chairs and plastic tables surrounded the beer and sandwich stands. Itau, a Brazilian bank, sponsored a carnival ride that swung participants 30 feet into the air. Americans were having fun, even if many were only marginally informed about their team.
“I don’t know everything about the American team, all the players names and stuff like that,” Chattle said with a smile. “I’ve played a lot of football, not so much soccer.” Still, Chattle and Salas took a week off from their jobs in California to come to the Cup, making the 12-hour flight to the other side of the equator because it sounded like fun.
Sonny Chattle strikes a victorious pose after the U.S. soccer team won its first match at the 2014 World Cup.Photo: Cedar Attanasio
Brazil, which is cheaper for Americans to visit than South Africa or Germany, has drawn an unprecedented number of Americans, accounting for the second-highest number of ticket purchases, after Brazilians themselves. According to the Los Angeles Times, Americans bought 154,000 tickets and an estimated 20,000 cheered in the stadium in Natal, according to Brazilian television channel Globo.
At Fan Fest, Americans experienced near-celebrity status, particularly after their team's win. Some Brazilians attended the game explicitly to mingle with them. At the beginning of the night, journalists were asked to photograph these encounters with the fans' smart phones.
Some Brazilians cheered for the U.S. team, arriving in red, white and blue jerseys and American flag accessories. Others used the opportunity to practice their English. Americans also received impromptu samba lessons during the game’s intermission. At the end of the night, some of the same people taking photos together for the first time left holding hands, exchanging phrases in broken English and Portunhol (Spanish words adapted to Portuguese).
But the attention wasn’t all positive. At one point, a Brazilian man approached a group of Americans and chanted “U.S.A., racist!”
The Americans chanted back a predictable, vulgar insult a few times before quickly switching to “Barack Obama, Barack Obama!”
For some American fans, the trip to Brazil was part soccer passion, part wanderlust.
“After this, we’re going to Argentina,” said Allon Brann, dressed in his U.S.A. soccer uniform. He traveled with four other Americans from New Orleans.
For expatriate Americans who live and work in São Paulo, the games offer a chance to participate in a soccer culture dominated by yellow and green. “I watched the opening game last Thursday [between Brazil and Croatia],” said Robert Damico, who has worked in São Paulo for three years for an American sports apparel company. “The passion of the Brazilian fans was amazing."
Damico, who has attended six World Cups, championed Brazil as a great place to live and mix with other cultures. “It’s so international, there are people from everywhere,” he said. A soccer player himself, Demico has high hopes for his team, and already has tickets for other U.S. matches. “America has a lot of great players, and they’re well-organized by [coach Jurgen] Klinsmann," he said, then added, "Go Yanks!”
U.S. fan Robert Damico shakes hands with a Ghanian fan after the U.S. won its match against Ghana. Photo: Cedar Attanasio