TAMPA — Kicking, shooting and dribbling.
An estimated 125 children worked on their soccer skills Tuesday afternoon with players from the Tampa Bay Rowdies at the Shimberg Soccer Complex in Town ’N Country. It’s the sort of event the Rowdies do every now and then, but this time, there’s a little more intensity in the air.
It’s World Cup time, after all.
Every World Cup helps boost the sport of soccer, even though the game’s popularity in this country has been trending up for years, said Frankie Sanfilippo, the Tampa Bay Rowdies captain and defender.
Also helping is that the U.S. men’s soccer team continues to improve and progress, he said after Tuesday’s free soccer clinic sponsored by the Rowdies and McDonald’s of Tampa Bay.
“The country is behind them,’’ Sanfilippo said. “It’s a great time for soccer. The longer they go in the tournament, the more people get more involved.”
At Tuesday’s soccer clinic, evidence of the popularity of World Cup soccer was clear.
Most of the children, ages 5-15 from all over the Tampa Bay region, came out wearing their favorite soccer team’s jersey or a team jersey with the name of their favorite player. For this youthful crowd, many wore the jersey of Lionel Messi, the Argentinian soccer star considered by many to be the best player in the world.
John Cabrales, 9, was wearing the Colombian national team jersey. He’s been watching all the World Cup games and his favorite players, including Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.
Already on a youth soccer team, the World Cup matches have motivated Cabrales by giving him a chance to see the best players in action, he said.
“It has inspired me to become a better player,” said Cabrales, a fourth-grader at Twin Lakes Elementary.
Parents at the clinic said soccer’s popularity in the U.S. has grown consistently since the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994.
The youth programs have improved and become more competitive. There are also several professional soccer leagues in the U.S., including Major League Soccer and North American Soccer League.
The sport is family-friendly and relatively inexpensive, said Jimmy Custin, whose two daughters participated in the clinic.
But the sport is also challenging, said Custin, who played with U.S. Air Force teams when he was stationed in Europe.
“It’s the easiest sport to play and the hardest to master,” he said.